Little lords of the ring: Is child boxing a form of abuse? Or is it a perfectly acceptable sport?
PHUKET: The pungent smell of liniment fills the changing rooms behind the ring at Patong Boxing Stadium.
Friday 23 March 2012, 09:16AM
Half-sitting on a hard bed, 10-year-old Arsarn is being rubbed all over with the fragrant oil until he shines.
Arsan is small and lanky – but tough both physically and mentally. “I’m not afraid to fight,” he says, jabbing the air with punches as part of his warm-up.
“The only thing I’m worried about is that my opponent will get hurt.”
Children in the Thai boxing ring is nothing new in Thailand, but Buffalo Girls, a documentary made recently by an American filmmaker, Todd Kellstein, about two girl boxers, sparked a furore in the West.
“Brutal Thai boxing bouts see boys and girls as young as SIX fighting as ‘entertainment’ for tourists” Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper howled last month. Newspaper and online reviews of the movie varied from thoughtful to outraged, many branding child boxing as child abuse.
“British, American and German holidaymakers are queuing up to see the sickening spectacle which has arrived in the country’s holiday resorts from remote villages,” the Mail stormed.
Arsarn is unaware of all this. His name is called and he jumps into the ring and performs the slow ritual dance that is the precursor to every Thai boxing match. His opponent, another 10-year-old boxer from Krabi, does the same.
At just 10, Arsarn doesn’t yet understand that his full-on, no-punches-pulled bout with another child will produce very mixed reactions in the multi-national crowd of spectators: acclamation or shocked silence.
But one of the judges for the evening understands. “Some people love watching them, some don’t. It depends on your point of view whether you see children boxing as opportunity for the kids or as child abuse.”
FLOWERS AND STONES:
It is estimated that more than 30,000 child boxers kick and punch in rings across Thailand. Child rights activists in Thailand pushed in the 1990s for stricter control of child boxing. Partly as a result, in 1999 the Boxing Act set
the minimum age for professional boxers at 15.
But still child boxing matches were popular and, for many families, a child who could box well was a valuable addition to the family finances.
The Boxing Act did nothing to protect the under-15s. It simply bars them from the ring – unless parents sign a letter of permission.
Only boxers over 15 years old who are registered with the Sport Authorities of Thailand receive safety guarantees from the authorities, and get financial support if they are injured during a fight.
In 2007, a seminar on measures to ensure the safety of child boxers was arranged in Bangkok. The seminar itself and the specialist research presented in the seminar showed a deep divide between child rights activists and those who supported child boxing.
“When we conducted the research, the feedback we got was like a mixture of flowers and stones,” said Prof
Sombat Ritthidetch from Ramajitti Institute, who surveyed aspects of child boxers in the Northeast of Thailand.
His survey showed that many of the study group were often absent from school because of their long hours of training. Many of the children, he found, showed signs of stunted growth because of measures taken by trainers to control their weight.
He also concluded that boxing for years might cause brain damage in children.
But very little research of this nature has been done in Thailand, partly because its publication angers people in the boxing business.
Many trainers, and boxers too, argue that in order to achieve success, any Thai boxer with aspirations must start training very early. They also argue that experience shows that child boxing is not harmful if the children are taught well and practice consistently.
“We don’t oppose child boxing,” said Prof Sombat. “We just want some changes to be made to child boxing. For example, let the children wear protective gear to prevent damage during fights.”
One person who does think child boxing is a form of child abuse, and should be banned, is the Chief of the Child Safety Promotion and Injury Prevention Research Center (CSIP) of Rama Hospital, Dr Adisak Palitpon.
Last year, CSIP arranged medical checkup for a study group of 40 long-term child boxers. Though the study detected no physical or mental problems, CSIP plans to perform annual checkups for the study group as part of a long-term study into the physical and mental impacts of boxing.
But Dr Adisak argues that boxing is not a sport, but a business. “It’s clearly child abuse,” he says. “I don’t think child boxing is a proper form of sport. Claiming that children enter the ring ‘to escape poverty’ is just not the case.”
Proponents of the sport, however, argue just the opposite, adding that the money – in particular the betting – that goes with Thai boxing is essential for some families. This, they say, is particularly the case in rural parts of Thailand, where boxing allows people to escape the poverty trap through excellence in sport.
“If you have no other opportunities, you don’t have a choice,” says the owner of Rawai Muay Thai, Pricha Chokkuea.
“You won’t have the money to buy equipment to play any other sport, or to pay a trainer for the training.”
Mr Pricha started his own boxing career when he was very young as a way to open up opportunities in his life.
He is now a model for others: the sucessful child boxer who became wealthy.
He points out that in Muay Thai training, young students don’t usually have to pay for the training, or even for food and accommodation.
The child boxers may make some money from happy gamblers rewarding them for winning but their performance fee is normally split 50-50 between their trainer and the camp.
Mr Pricha currently has eight child boxers under his wing, some of whom moved from other parts of the country to Phuket because the performance fees are higher on the island than elsewhere.
The fees start at B1,000 a match for a beginner fighting in a proper stadium – there are two in Patong and one in Chalong. If the child is a winner the fees can climb as high as B10,000 a bout.
Pom, 15, followed his uncle to train at Rawai Muay Thai. He is lucky – Mr Pricha lets him keep his performance fees. Pom gets paid B4,000 a match, and can earn several thousand more from happy spectators.
“I want to be a professional boxer,” he says.
“I’m okay with what I’m doing now.”
In a place like Phuket, where extreme poverty is now happily rare, some children go into the ring in search of fame and respect, rather than as an escape from poverty.
For example, the family of nine-year-old Fifa don’t have financial problems. He just loves to box. He trains in the early morning, from 5 to 7am, and then again after school, starting at 4pm.
Fifa enrolled himself. “I walked to the boxing camp by myself, and asked if I could join the training,” he says.
He’s good at it. After winning seven matches, he commands fees of B10,000 a bout.
Grinning with pride, he pulls a Samsung mobile phone from his pocket. “I bought this phone myself,” he says. “Boxing is my choice.”
Movie-maker Kellstein admitted in an interview that when he first saw children boxing, “I thought it was horrible child abuse. I wanted to make a film that would create awareness and make it end.”
But after three years making the documentary, he is much more ambivalent. “In the US, people are adamant that it has to stop [but] it’s really not our business to say what people in other cultures should or shouldn’t do,” he says.