The mirage of Olympic Muay Thai

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Last week, after IFMA’s press release titled “IFMA Granted Full Recognition at 138th IOC Session in Tokyo”, infinite declarations and statements (in good faith) celebrating Muay Thai’s hypothetical admission to the Olympic Games (we will refer to them as OG). The press release is actually very clear from a verbal point of view, on the other hand, marketing experts are well aware that verbal communication doesn’t stand a chance against non-verbal one. IFMA’s statement clearly talks about recognition, but many social media posts are already celebrating as if Muay Thai was, in fact, already an Olympic sport. Technicians are already publishing videos on which they explain the difference in rhythm compared to professional Muay Thai and fantasizing to the point where there are arguments between who is in favor of Muay Thai going to the OG and who is not, pointing out that “real” professional Muay Thai could suffer from it.

The steps to become and Olympic Sport are the following:

  • Meet the requirements, the most important one being that it must be practiced in at least 75 countries and at least 4 continents.
  • Receive the IOC’s recognition.
  • Entering the “short list” of candidates to enter as a discipline in the next OG. Up until the year 1992 they were defined as Demonstrations Sports, which are usually included to promote a non-Olympic sport, which is popular in the hosting nation.
  • Taking part to an OG edition as a Demonstration Sport. For example, Karate WKF in this year’s Games in Tokyo, which has NOT been yet confirmed for Paris 2024.
  • Finally, taking part as an official Olympic Sport, like Judo for example, which entered as a Demonstration Sport back in 1964 in Japan and even if it wasn’t confirmed for 1968 in Mexico, it became official in 1972 in Monaco.

Up until 1992 Olympic Games, the hosting nation would propose Demonstration Sports but only some of them would eventually be selected as official Olympic Sports. The main difference is that, today, Demonstration Sports are treated like official sports and therefore are included in the medal table.

Talking about martial arts, the choice to propose Judo was dictated by the fact that the Japanese were very dominant in the sport, and they would be more likely to win medals. Taekwondo, as well, was presented as a Demonstration Sport (without medals) in Soul in 1988 and today it is the most popular combat sport in the world. WTF is the 6th Olympic federation by number of member nations with approximately 70 million members spread across all 5 continents. Even though it is such a popular sport, there were initially 8 weight classes but now they have been reduced to just 4 (-58 kg, -68 kg, -80 kg, +80 kg. Women: -49 kg, -57 kg, -67 kg, +67 kg.). Think of when we argue at weigh-ins for 1 kg!

The IOC’s following change in the rules for new sports to enter the program, determines the limitation by the hosting country to propose new sports, putting the decision in to the hands of an external committee which values the entering of new disciplines, which will have to obtain an approval of at least 66% votes (in favor). Karate, being an emblematic case, appeared alongside Squash as a pre-selection to enter the Games in London 2012 as a Demonstration Sport but did not get enough votes. Four years later, at the IOC session in Copenhagen, Karate was once again in the short list and it looked like it was about to make it, but in the end Rugby and Golf were chosen for Rio 2016.

This year, although the number of “new” sports allowed to try out are two, for Tokyo 2020 an exception was made. The proposal to allow 5 sports instead of 2 it’s not only merit of the IOC, in fact, Japan not only proposed a series of “young” sports but also offered to cover the extra expenses, therefore taking them out of the IOC’s budget. Apparently, JKF president Takashi Sasagawa has also contributed with funds.

The latest news say that the extra costs exceeded 10 billion USD, brining the total cost to 25 billion $.

Despite the financial effort, Karate (which entered as one of the 5 Demonstration Sports) was NOT confirmed for Paris 2024, where the new sports (official and demonstration) confirmed are: Skateboard, Sport Climbing, Surf and Breaking (break dance).

Therefore, the goal for sports who have just been recognized like Kick Boxing, Muay Thai and Sambo, the debut as tryout sports could happen at the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Probably more realistic for Kick Boxing, as it is much more popular in the USA compared to Muay Thai?

Rumors have been going around that, Muay Thai could enter in the short list in 2032, as Bangkok was one of the candidates to host the Games.

Probably, like it happened with Karate, the Thai government could have been willing to give financial aid to help Muay Thai get included. These were only rumors without official confirmation, but it doesn’t really matter as Bangkok was not chosen, the 2032 Olympic Games will take place in Brisbane.

Australia is the closest western country to Bangkok’s Muay Thai and has a notable number of practitioners. Therefore, the realistic goal for Muay Thai is to enter the short list of new sports and maybe to receive some financial help by the Australian federation, in order to obtain enough votes by the commission and make its debut. For now, its just an hypothesis.

Keep in mind that we are talking about 2032, in 11 years’ time! This means that, athletes who can start to take interest in Olympic Muay Thai are now kids. A fighter that is now 24, in 2032 will be 35!

We need to reflect about this before investing time and resources in a “different” Muay Thai, blinded by the Olympic mirage. For example, Olympic Karate it’s a totally different sport today than it was before the Olympics; one where, a fighter that gets knocked out by a kick in the face, wins the GOLD medal (video). Moreover, if it’s true that Olympic Muay Thai can offer great prizes to its champions and maybe a spot as a Policeman or a Fireman, let’s not forget that it would happen only if the sport would eventually become an official Olympic Sport. Many are the disciplines that appeared (even only once) and were never given the final nod.

To complete the picture and for the sake of having different points of view about the status quo of Muay Thai, we asked the opinion of a few experts, in both the professional and amateur branch, regarding the hypothetical scenario of the next 10 years and about what the IOC’s recognition means as a growth opportunity for the whole Muay Thai field.

Here is who they are:

  • Gabriela Murg,
    Executive VP of Legal and International Affairs at World Muay Federation

    President of European Muay Confederation – E.M.C.
    & Antonio Krauss General Secretary of W.M.F. 
  • Emmanuele Corti, retired Muay Thai fighter who lives in Thailand and co-owns Sitjemam camp, which produced champions like Maroles Merza and Miriam Sabot. In the amateur branch, he was part of the technical team in the Dutch national team for the 2015 IFMA World Championships in Bangkok.
  • Didier Le Borgne, who as an athlete had over 100 fighters and he was a product of the famous Brizon Gym, a team that was pioneer in Muay Thai and amongst the first to fight in notable events in the 80s, like Rajadamnern Stadium and shows live broadcasted on CH7 TV Channel as well as events in provinces all around Thailand. The Frenchmen is roughly the same age as Rob Kaman. Nothing to compare with the achievements of Ramon Dekkers, who arrived in Thailand afterwards and had great success in the 90s. With a vast experience as a trainer and a technician, he has been the trainer and cornerman of many top fighters all around the globe. He has now been teaching K1 style, Kick Boxing, Muay Thai and MMA for 30 years and has been living in Italy for 15 of those.

Here is what they stated:

Antonio Krauss e Gabriela Murg released the following declaration: Read it here

Emmanuele Corti

Muay Thai, along with Cheerleading, Ice Stock Sport (curling), Lacrosse, Sambo and last but not least WAKO kickboxing got final recognition as Olympic sports by the IOC.

Warning: this does not mean that Muay Thai will be present at the next Olympics, but simply that it could be scheduled in one of the future editions.

Although we are talking about the mere possibility of a future addition of Muay Thai to the Olympic program by a host country (note that it has not yet appeared at the Asian Games), this represents an incredible turning point for the discipline albeit with pros and cons.

Specifically speaking of Thailand, if the amateur sector will be featured at the games, it would likely drain many top Thai fighters out of the pro circuits.
This would simply happen due to the fact that fighters would be salaried by the navy, army or similar institutions to be part of the national team.
They would then aim to cash the consistent prizes guaranteed for medals winners, even more important than those already currently recognized to Thai athletes for IFMA amateur medals.

Olympic Muay Thai could therefore represent a safer and more constant source of income than the current income of professional Muay Thai.

This could generate, thanks to the important cashflow, unimaginable appetite among the political/bureaucratic rooms and it is reasonable to think that this discipline could in fact become the No. 1 for Thailand.

For the traditional 5×3 stadium format, therefore, it might be possible to be the end of the games. It would also come as no surprise if a stadium like Lumpini, run by the army, was converted into a federal center, keeping Muay Thai detached from the other Olympic sports that are at home at Rajamangala National Stadium (Bang Kapi).

At international level, if the Olympic Muay Thai competitions will really begin to be a reality, there will be a massive development and IFMA will become the only amateur body as it happened for WTF in Taekwondo, with its standard universally accepted for the amateur, effectively absorbing all the other federations.

The main fear of Muay Thai experts from all over the world is that in the future Muay Thai will almost certainly look like a sport that will have very little to do with the Muay Thai that we have experienced.
In the worst case scenario it will end up hostage of amateurs (as sadly happened in the world of Italian boxing) populated by 40y.o. salaried by some government institution or police force that never turned into professionals.

Didier Le Borgne

In the last few years Muay Thai is much different than the one I practiced in Thailand in the 80s. I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad one, what I know is that we must accept this evolution and grow alongside the discipline. Just to be clear, the Muay Thai that I practiced 20 years ago was a different one compared to the one practiced in the 60s.
Personally, I have never liked amateur Muay Thai that was practiced, talking about its sportive aspect, I tried by I couldn’t get around to liking it, sorry!
Certainly, for many fighters in the world it represents a good vehicle to get discovered as fighters and this, in my opinion, is the only positive aspect. Today, IMFA branded Muay Thai has been recognized by the IOC, and it is a positive thing for athletes and gyms who are affiliated to the “saint church” that represents IFMA in their countries and it will bring them some benefits. In spite of that, there still are possible negative consequences which have already been underlined by Emmanuele Corti in his comment. He also brought up the example of Italian Pugilato (Boxing) on which I agree, but we have to consider that Italian fighters who are at good level cannot make a living out of Muay Thai in Italy, they don’t get the media exposure and their purses are close to misery. Therefore, the prospective to receive a salary is very attractive for their own survival; and this could be the same for many other countries. Another problem as it seems to be shaping up, could be some opportunities are only waiting to grab their piece of the pie (regarding the money that would come in) and the athletes could in the end be left empty handed.
I admit of having been a pessimist on the future of this sport, but my position for the last few years has been that by 2030, Muay Thai, K1 and Kick Boxing (professional) will disappear just like it happened with Full Contact, back in the days. Muay Thai will still live in Thailand, supported by gambling, and that’s it. Amateur KB and MT will be practiced by kids and amateurs. The pro fighters will be doing MMA and Boxing, I’m very sad to make this prediction, but I’m more than sure because, in France for example, another country where Muay Thai is strong, there are no more Muay Thai or Kickboxing gyms opening but instead there are MMA ones; and now that we have 2 UFC champions, the trend will grow! Many notable athletes are switching to MMA and with them their teams and the audience as well. The process in France is already in motion and I predict the same migration towards MMA, in Italy. Observation of a passionate but pessimist observer, I admit it!

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