Muay Thai sets sights on Olympic glory, but not everyone is thrilled
Efforts to promote Muay Thai as a global sport have been met with resistance from some corners, with fears that international exposure will dilute its tradition and heritage.
BANGKOK: Thailand’s national martial art Muay Thai could soon make its debut on the world’s biggest sporting stage, the Olympics.
The combat sport already has an increasingly global audience, with many would-be fighters making trips to its birthplace to immerse themselves in the culture.
After the inclusion in numerous multi-sport events such as the World Games earlier this year, the next step is for Muay Thai to be featured at the Olympics. But efforts to promote it as a global sport have been met with resistance from some corners.
PUSHING FOR MUAY THAI TO MAKE OLYMPIC DEBUT
The International Olympic Council (IOC) has already recognised it as an Olympic sport and it is eligible to be included in the Summer Games if organisers want to do so.
Mr Stephen Fox, secretary general of the International Federation of Muaythai Associations, the only Muay Thai body recognised by the IOC, is pushing for it to happen.
While elevating the sport to the global stage may seem like a good thing, some critics fear that the international exposure will dilute or even do away with the sport's cultural heritage and traditions, such as the pre-fight rituals “wai kru” (greeting the teacher) and “ram muay” (boxing dance).
But some have fought back, saying these detractors just want to maintain their monopoly on the martial art.
“We want Thailand to be the motherland. The tradition, the culture, all of this needs to be fostered and promoted. That's why we have in our contract that a major championship must be held in Thailand every two years,” said Mr Fox.
“But they think that we are controlling them, and that we are trying to put a sport under one umbrella and regulate it. Our aim is to protect the most important assets any society has, any sport has, we try to protect our youth. Because if we cannot do this, we have no future.”
His federation, which has 146 national associations from across the world, wants to implement international protocols such as doping tests and athlete safety measures across borders.
The Thai government is using the combat sport as a soft power vehicle to promote its tourism industry and has been holding various events to show that it is for everyone.
It has also thrown its support behind Muay Thai courses overseas.
LEARNING MUAY THAI FROM ITS BIRTHPLACE
Sports organisations and promoters are hoping to add to the small but steady stream of practitioners who visit Thailand to immerse themselves in the sport.
The World Boxing Council Muay Thai, for example, has teamed up with the Tourism Authority of Thailand with the aim to get more people to visit the country.
“(For instance), you have a child learning Muay Thai, we want to convey that at least once, come to Thailand to learn it in its motherland,” said WBC Muay Thai executive secretary Thanapol Bhakdibhumi.
“But the child cannot come alone, so the parents will come along and that doubles or triples (the revenue). So we have a lot of activities to show that eventually you have to come to Thailand, bringing it all together directly and indirectly.”
Mrs Sylvie Von Duuglas-Ittu from the United States is one such fighter who has travelled to Thailand to learn more about the sport.
She has since chalked up more than 270 fights, the most recorded number of fights by a foreigner in the country.
Mrs Von Duuglas-Ittu started her Muay Thai journey 12 years ago, after watching the Thai martial arts film Ong Bak. Fascinated by the action, she soon took up her first classes under a Thai master in the US.
But she soon realised that to fully understand the sport, she would need to soak in the culture behind it.
“I think that there's a folly to the people who only want to dip their toe in and then go home and call themselves 'kru' (teacher),” she said.
“People who really love Muay Thai, who really get hooked by it and see it for what it is, understand what it is to fall down that rabbit hole, and to come here, and to feel like you're constantly learning. You are forever a student.”
And even if the sport is included at a future Olympics, international Muay Thai fighters such Mrs Von Duuglas-Ittu recognise that it is still a Thai sport.
“If I were to go fight at the Olympics, I would represent America. But I've learned everything from Thailand,” she said.
“I will be representing what Thailand has given me, not what America has given me - I was just born there.”