One head punch too many
Death of a 13-year-old in ring prompts fierce debate over child safety
The death of a 13-year-old kickboxer, who died of a brain haemorrhage on Nov 11 after being knocked out in the ring, has drawn public attention to a draft amendment to the Boxing Act, now seen as a mechanism to better protect the rights and safety of young kickboxers.
Before the death of Anucha Thasako, better known as Petmongkol Sor Wilaithong in Muay Thai circles, drafters of the amendment were still divided over whether there should be a minimum age for fighters.
But after the young boxer's death made headlines, there has been a shift in emphasis towards deciding on an age below which children cannot box competitively.
Most experts admit that the mindset of parents, and their economic status, are partly to blame for negligence towards child safety in the sport.
As with competition organisers, more attention is paid to victories and rewards than ensuring safety standards in every match.
This negligence is hindering the development of both the sport itself and the safety of its younger participants.
While the first draft amendment to the Boxing Act has already gone to the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) for deliberation, the cabinet is now set to propose a newer draft to the NLA, said Tourism and Sports Minister Weerasak Kowsurat.
The latest version has been drafted by Sports Authority of Thailand (SAT), he said.
But unlike the draft currently with the NLA, the government's version won't stipulate a minimum age limit in order to allow the committee vetting the draft to freely discuss an appropriate age stipulation, he said.
Updated requirements regarding other safety measures would also be discussed.
Given the strong consensus between the government and NLA, Mr Weerasak believes the updated draft amendment should be passed and take effect by next month.
He said nobody wants to wait for a new government and new parliament to have to begin the process anew after the election.
An investigation by his ministry and the SAT into the death of the 13-year-old in a fight in Samut Prakan found that the organiser of the event failed to fully comply with the current boxing law.
The ministry and the SAT now aim to further probe whether the uncle of the dead young boxer who entered him into the fight really had the legal right to do so in the absence of a parent's consent, said Mr Weerasak.
In addition, the referee in the ring is responsible for ensuring the combatants' safety by ending the fight if a situation arises where a boxer risks sustaining severe injuries, he said.
The kickboxing camp which Anucha was with will also face an investigation into whether it had provided sufficient safety equipment and allowed the children to take sufficient rest between fights as required by the law, he said.
The minister said he strongly believed the fight that claimed the boy's life involved betting.
"No one else, other than boxing trainers, ever want to watch kids having a fist fight … and most adults audience tend to bet on the result," he said.
Adisak Plitponkarnpim, director of the Child Safety Promotion and Injury Prevention Centre at Ramathibodi Hospital who has been studying brain injuries associated with children kickboxing, said there are about 300,000 children regularly taking part in Thailand.
There were only a handful of kickboxers whose brains had not been affected as a result of starting when they were very young, he said.
In his study, Dr Adisak said he found that a kickboxer on average sustained up to 40 impacts to the head in every match.
Every time a fist hits the head of the boxer, rotational force is generated that affects the brainstem and pituitary gland, which results in unusual hormone production and excretion, he said.
This reaction was documented in a study by Jiraporn Laothamatas who monitored hormone excretion from the pituitary gland in the brain of 30 child kickboxers using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and compared the results with those of 300 non-boxing children of the same age range from families of equal economic status.
"The study found damaged neurons and damaged red blood cells in the brains of the child boxers, which are signs of brain injury," said Dr Adisak.
"Most of the kickboxers were also found to have loose nerve fibres around the brainstem, which shows evidence of their brains having been impacted.
"We've been addressing numerous press conferences about these important findings over the past five years, and a series of meetings were held to brainstorm on how to deal with the problem."
A number of senior fighters, Muay Thai camps and promoters have been working together with government agencies concerned to create a new format for children that is safe, good for their health and supports the development of the sport, he said.
"Why do they still make kids as young as seven box despite the fact that the 2003 child protection law prohibits employment of children in dangerous work or allowing them to engage in dangerous sports?" he said.
In Dr Adisak's view, children under 12 should not be allowed to train in a way that involves strikes to the head or competitive fights.
Prai Panyalakshana, chief executive officer of Rajadamnern Stadium, meanwhile, argues that fighters need to begin training as early as possible as careers in the sport are so short-lived and fighters are seen as being too old for the sport when they reach 30.
Wichit Khiatsong, know as Phayak Samui in fighting circles, a well-known Thai Fight boxer and owner of Bangkok Noi Village boxing camp, said he started out when he was six years old and now, at the age of 26, has completed more than 400 fights.
The worst injury he had sustained throughout his boxing career was a broken jaw which required five months to recover, he says.
"I insist no one has ever died of being knocked out in the ring," he said.
In the case of Anucha, he said the problem stemmed from a bad decision paring him with a larger fighter who had considerably more fighting experience.
"Because most Thai kickboxers have smaller bodies when compared with their Western counterparts, it is important for them to start out at a younger age so they have more time to obtain experience," said Phayak.
He believes the amendment will face strong resistance from both boxers and referees.
He said that at the age of six, he earned 150 baht for a fight.
However, later when he came to fight in big cities, he was able to earn 6,000-8,000 baht a fight, although he could only fight once a month.
Chavalit Yancharoon, head of Sukhumvit Boxing Camp, confirmed that young child kickboxers earn only between 400 and 500 baht a month.
He said he strongly opposes a minimum boxing age because the current boxing law is good enough to ensure the safety of boxers.
Chavalit believes the current regulations are sufficient but the standard of refereeing should be improved to ensure they are better able to decide when to end fights to make sure no lasting damage can occur to either fighter.