Tibor Krausz, Bangkok
Updated: December 27, 2018 09:15 PM GMT
A 10-year-old boy pummels his brother during an intense Muay Thai sparring session at a Bangkok boxing gym. The recent death of a 13-year-old boy has raised questions about the safety of children in the ring. (Photo by Tibor Krausz/ucanews.com)
The jittery video makes for unsettling viewing. It was taken at ringside on a mobile phone during the third round of a five-round Muay Thai fight in Thailand's Samut Prakan province on Nov. 10.
The short online video shows a 13-year-old boy being punched repeatedly in the head by his 14-year-old opponent before he falls unconscious to the floor as the crowd cheers the knockout. The youngster was taken to hospital but died a few days later of a brain hemorrhage.
His death has confirmed the fears of child safety advocates who view no-holds-barred fights for youngsters as a dangerous form of child abuse. It has also reignited calls in Thailand for fights featuring young children to be banned.
Several high-profile Thai medical experts have been insisting for years that children face serious health hazards when they are encouraged to fight it out during spirited Muay Thai (Thai boxing) matches without any protective gear such as headguards.
"Brain injuries caused by boxing can have long-term effects on [children's] neurological systems," Prof. Jiraporn Laothamatas, a neuroradiologist at Ramathibodi Hospital of Mahidol University in Bangkok, said at a recent seminar in the Thai capital.
Jiraporn's team conducted a study of more than 300 child fighters and found that they tended to have markedly lower IQs than children their age from the same socioeconomic backgrounds. The reason likely lies in the repeated knocks young boxers have received to their heads because the developing brains of children are especially vulnerable to injuries.
Children who fight in the ring regularly "will be less intelligent than children who don't box," Jiraporn stressed. Child boxers could also be more likely to develop neurological disorders like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's later in life.
Child safety advocates have thrown their support behind a draft amendment to Thailand's 1999 Boxing Act, which is under review in parliament. The amendment proposes raising the minimum age limit for children allowed to fight in the ring to 13 — albeit not even that limit would have saved the boy in Samut Prakan, who was exactly 13.
"No age is safe for boxing, but we seek to ensure a balance between safety and the right [to box]," Dr. Adisak Plitponkarnpim, director of Ramathibodi Hospital's Child Safety Promotion and Injury Prevention Research Centre, explained in an interview with Thai media. "Children under 12 should be banned from competitive bouts."
The current age limit is 15 for professional bouts, yet younger children can participate in unlicensed amateur fights. Some boys and girls around Thailand, especially in the countryside, start fighting in the ring as early as age four or five, before they even begin school.
Children in their early teens kick punchbags at a dilapidated Bangkok gym. They all hope to achieve celebrity and financial security by becoming champions. (Photo by Tibor Krausz/ucanews.com)
Several child safety advocates have also been calling for a legally binding requirement to equip all children in the ring with proper protective gear.
Yet many proponents of Thailand's beloved national sport have been crying foul over such proposals. Representatives of boxing associations have been vocal in insisting that fights by children are part of a time-honored Thai tradition that must remain free of tampering.
"Muay Thai is a very competitive sport," Pumpichai Rattanawisit, a trainer and fight promoter, told ucanews.com. "The sooner kids begin testing themselves in the ring, the more experience they'll gain, and the more experience they gain, the better their chances will be to become professionals."
The trainer argues that children rarely injure each other seriously despite occasional mishaps. "Kids can get hurt," he concedes. "But their injuries aren't that serious."
Pumpichai runs an old open-air gym with a storied history in a squalid Bangkok slum where several boys in their early teens are training to be champions. They spar in a dilapidated ring, pummel tatty punching bags, lift rusty weights and skip ropes. They also regularly participate in prize fights.
Lumpini Boxing Stadium, one of Thailand's two premier Muay Thai venues, lies invitingly within easy walking distance. Several former alumni of the 40-year-old gym went on to have stellar careers in the hallowed old stadium. Their laminated pictures are on display around the decrepit gym, with the examples of these successful boxers serving as inspiration for the kids now training there.
In the wake of the 13-year-old boy's death, several trainers who work with children have taken to social media to argue that the referee was to blame for not stopping the fight soon enough.
Be that as it may, not even such well-publicized tragedies are likely to discourage legions of children from continuing to try and test their mettle in the ring, especially with their parents cheering them on.
Anywhere between 200,000 and 300,000 children are believed to be training in Muay Thai around the country, and many hope to become champions one day. In the boxing-crazed nation, the best of the best in Muay Thai are feted as celebrities and rewarded with lucrative sponsorship deals.
Child fighter Nontawat Supesuk, 14, trains at a gym in a Bangkok slum. ‘I love fighting in the ring. It’s very exciting. But I’m not a bully. I never fight outside the ring,’ he says. (Photo by Tibor Krausz/ucanews.com)
One of these young aspirants is Nontawat Supesuk, who is 14. Originally from the eastern province of Surin, the bashful youngster with a well-toned physique trains almost every day in Pumpichai's gym in Bangkok, sweating it out with several other boys in the muggy afternoon heat. He lives with his parents in the adjacent slum.
Nontawat started fighting in the ring when he was nine and five years on he now has 50 fights under his belt. His scarred eyebrows testify to several hard knocks he has received from fists and elbows.
"I love fighting in the ring. It's very exciting," he says. "But I'm not a bully. I never fight outside the ring."
The boy says he wants to follow in his father's footsteps. "My father was a boxer and he was a champion," Nontawat explains. "I want to be a champion too."
Just as important as the glory that comes from being a champion is the economic incentive. For boys and girls from deprived backgrounds, a successful career in Muay Thai can be the difference between lifelong penury and relative affluence.
"These kids come from poor families," Pumpichai says. "They already make 2,000 baht (US$61) a fight. They can help their families a lot."
This article was first published 20.11.2018.
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