This week on Dateline a closer look at Muay Thai, especially the training of children in martial arts.
Muay Thai is a national obsession in Thailand, with around 200,000 child boxers nationwide* – many as young as four-years-old – competing in boxing rings for fame or fortune.
At present, Thailand is being forced to rethink its national sport after a 13-year-old was knocked out during a fight and died from a head injury last year.
This week on Dateline, reporter Dean Cornish goes to Thailand to find out whether a sport that causes demonstrable physical harm to its participants should be banned, even if it’s a national favourite.
Phuripat Poolsuk, 13, has been fighting professionally since age nine. Already a local hero, Phuripat dreams of making his family and country proud by taking part in championships around the world.
Kids like him have to undergo a complete lifestyle change to realise their dream. Phuripat trains seven hours a day, every day. “Every day I wake up at 4:30am and run for over 10 kilometres. Then after school, I go back to training”, he tells Dateline.
Muay Thai is a huge business in Thailand for tourism, sports and the illegal gambling industry. The sport is gaining rapid popularity overseas to nations including Australia. Every year, hundreds of Australian tourists travel to Thailand to attend Muay Thai camps.
But it’s also a dangerous combat sport and many are asking whether children should be subjected to the injuries that come with it.
Neurologist Professor Jiraporn Laothammatas spent five years scanning the brains of hundreds of child fighters. She has found shocking evidence that Muay Thai causes irreversible brain damage.
“The old bleeds from repeated head injuries cause damage to the brain’s nerve cells. If you are a kick-boxer, you will have the IQ lower than that of a child of same age from similar social economic background”.
Fifteen year old fighter Nitikron’s life changed forever after a fight went terribly wrong. In November last year, his 13-year-old opponent lost his life due to a brain injury he suffered during the fight. Nitikron found himself in the centre of a firestorm overnight. “The day I fought Anucha (his opponent), I was hundred percent confident of victory. I punched him and knocked him out. At first, I thought it was just a normal knockout, as happens in boxing. The next day around 1 am, he passed away. There was a social reaction on Facebook. I felt sad that people were attacking me”, he told Dateline.
According to rules of Muay Thai, the hit was legal and Nitikron did nothing wrong. But the impact of this tragedy on him is long lasting.
Anucha’s death has added fuel to a passionate debate, which will culminate in the presentation of a law later this year. The likes of Professor Jiraporn want to see children younger than 15-years-old banned from professional fighting. They want Thailand to follow the international standard regulations. If this law is passed, it will change a thousand year old sport forever.
But changing the law to protect the kid boxers would be very hard. This would also mean combating generations of traditions. Even if legislation is passed, it’ll take a while before these changes are felt in rural towns.
With regulation unlikely to come anytime soon, Thailand’s kid boxers will continue to fight for fame and fortune it’ll bring, leaving them vulnerable to life changing head injuries.
Tuesday, 21 May at 9.30pm on SBS.