Muay Thai strikes for Olympic glory

Thailand's national combat sport raised its international profile with an application to the IOC a few days after MMA, one of its rising competitors, was banned by the Sports Authority

An eventful week for combat sports in Thailand culminated on Tuesday night at Lat Phrao's Bangkok Convention Centre with a showcase of muay Thai, Thailand's traditional martial art, for an international audience.

HONOUR BEFORE BATTLE: Thailand’s Rungrueangchai Dao Sriburee performs the ‘wai khru’ ceremony ahead of his bout against Slovakian Vlado Konsky. PHOTOS: EZRA KYRILL ERKER

Organisers said 30 embassies were represented at the event, which was also attended by members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Thai public officials including Deputy Prime Minister Yutthasak Sasiprapa.

It was the official application by the Thai government and several muay Thai bodies including the International Federation of Muaythai Amateur (IFMA, which spans 128 national federations around the world) for IOC and World Games recognition of the sport _ a first step on the road towards muay Thai's greater inclusion in international sporting events and, eventually, the Olympic Games.

As Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in the programme notes described it, muay Thai is ''a unique form of martial arts for self defence, passed down from generation to generation, giving rise to heroes in unarmed combat during times of war and legends of the sport in times of peace. It combines fitness and strength with artistry and culture.''

HOMETOWN ADVANTAGE: Vlado Konsky from Slovakia on the way to losing to Thailand’s Rungrueangchai Dao Sriburee in the second preliminary match.

To underline the sport's growing international credentials, competitors on the night were drawn from around the world, including Brazil, France, Israel and South Africa. Spectators were able to observe several variations of the sport, from three-to five-round bouts to women's and four-fighter ''Super 4'' formats. The IFMA also showcased a two-round amateur bout complete with protective headgear, to illustrate how the sport might play out in Olympic competition or the World Games.

A cultural highlight was a choreographed demonstration of muay boran, muay Thai's historical predecessor, with its traditionally lower and wider stance and emphasis on speed and agility. Muay boran was popularised internationally by Tony Jaa in the 2003 film Ong Bak; on the night it was punctuated by drumming, dance and even a muay Thai anthem, We Are Muay Thai by Uzbekistan's Sevara Nazarkhan.

Fighting continued with Caley Reece of Australia beating Poland's Magdalena Rak in the women's category to win the Prime Minster Trophy, before Thailand's Lerdsila defeated France's Sofiane Derdega in the ''Sport is Your Gang'' title fight. Sport is Your Gang is a new worldwide initiative, launched on the night, to take troubled youth off the streets and into the muay Thai ring to become inspired to continue their education and focus on positive self-development.

Saiyok Pumpanmuang was the night's big winner, defeating first South Africa's Vuysile Colossa over three rounds and then Britain's Jordan Watson (earlier victor over Israel's Ilya Grad) in the five-round final of the Super 4 tournament to lift the King Bhumibol Trophy.

One complaint of the bouts might be the lack of transparency in the judging, as it wasn't clear if victories were split or unanimous decisions, or what the margin of victory was or how scores were tallied.

It was nevertheless an impressive exhibition _ televised locally and high profile enough to reverberate internationally _ to have the sport registered with the IOC and accepted in future Olympic competitions and the World Games.

The internationalisation of participants and spectators demonstrated the sport's growing global reach. Whether muay Thai features in the Olympic Games one day depends on many variables, and could take several more years of lobbying, but this was a big step towards that dream.

FIGHTING ROOTS: A choreographed muay boran exhibition was part of the official ceremony to apply for IOC and World Games recognition for muay Thai. Muay boran is muay Thai’s historical predecessor, a blanket term for a number of traditional martial arts.

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Writer: Ezra Kyrill Erker
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