Sport traditionally has embraced the quest for excellence; the whole point of competition is to find out who is the best athlete or team at any given point of time. However there is one activity which is radically redefining the whole nature of sport. There is an international federation which is energetically going in search of the worst rather than the best, and their promotional efforts focus on the marginalised just as much as the elite.
If anyone had been tasked ten years ago in selecting one international federation to be the most socially progressive in world sport, it is unlikely that they would have chosen the International Federation of Muaythai Amateur (IFMA). A male-dominated martial art where blows can be landed with any body part except the head, and which reflects centuries of a single Asian nation's traditions, does not sound like the ideal candidate to be a beacon for tolerance, equality and a global force for social transformation. However the federation and the sport have undergone a huge culture change.
Within the ring, the IFMA is delighted to promote healthy discipline and competition for young athletes. However acceptable fighting moves might be in the ring, they have no place in wider society, and the IFMA has successfully operated many social programmes worldwide to stop young men being lured into gangs. The sport may be based on controlled violence between equals, but the IFMA also recognises there are situations where violence should never be used, and so they fervently campaign for an end to violence directed towards women and children. It is remarkable that a sport which is based on ancient Thai traditions (for example the rules state that all bouts must be fought to the accompaniment of a live Thai orchestra!) has the courage to make radical innovations to ensure true gender equality.
The IFMA's most eye-catching initiative is the award-winning ‘Sport is Your Gang’ programme. All 130 national members of the IFMA are encouraged to start projects in urban areas, identifying youths from challenging backgrounds (poverty, crime, abuse, lack of education or integration).
The coaching in Muaythai techniques gives the young people discipline, self-worth and a sense of belonging, and the most promising fighters get opportunities to compete nationally and internationally. Traditionally in boxing, the skilled warrior would try to fight his way out of the ghetto. For Muaythai, the aim with Sport is Your Gang is more to remove the ghetto out of the fighter. The programme is having a huge social impact; Mexico has over 1,000 children enrolled in its projects, and as a reward has been given hosting rights to the 2018 World Championships which are now taking place. Beach resort Cancun will welcome a record number of athletes, including Brazil's largest team and Championship debutant Colombia.
It is not just with marginalised young people that the IFMA is having a cultural impact. Their commitment to true gender equality is just as genuine. Everyone involved with the sport receives education that violence against women and children is never acceptable. Huge strides have been made in putting women in key leadership positions and committees, female athletes are given the same amount of media coverage, and they have the same number of competitive weight categories as their male counterparts. When the IFMA realised that cultural factors were deterring women from Islamic countries from participation, they commissioned the design of new athlete uniforms, and also applied sanctions to countries that refused to send women's teams to compete. All these actions resulted in changes of attitudes and have allowed every athlete to realise their potential.
The IFMA truly embodies the ethos of The World Games, that sport is for everyone, and that every athlete should have the chance to shine. Though Muaythai only made its debut at The World Games last year in Wroclaw, it has deservedly retained its place on the sports roster for the next edition (2021) of the multi-sport festival, which will be hosted by the Alabama city of Birmingham. During the last decade, the IFMA has successfully reinvented itself as a force for societal change. The focus on engaging with young people and gender equality, and building a global audience for an exciting sport, was implemented long before such ideas became fashionable with the IOC. Who knows whether in some years in the future, the organisation may have to reinvent itself again, this time as an Olympic sport.
Brian Salmon for The World Games
The World Games is a multi-sport event staged every four years by the International World Games Association under the patronage of the International Olympic Committee. The 11th edition of The World Games will be held in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 15-25 July 2021. 3,600 athletes from over 30 sports and 100 countries will take part in the Games.