3 Sep 2011

Thai kid boxers square up to health risks

In Thailand, children as young as five earn cash by taking part in a version of boxing which uses elbows, knees and feet, as well as fists. But medical experts say it is dangerous and want it banned.

It is fight night in Chang Mai – and there is something special on the bill. The spectators have come for the “Superkids Championship”.

The band plays with gusto, and wagers are laid. Meanwhile, the contenders get themselves ready. They’re both 10 years old – boys trained to fight and entertain.

In Thailand they call it sport. But medical experts now say it is dangerous and should be banned.

In Muay Thai, boxers use their elbows, knees and feed as well as their fists.

Meet the Chaiwang family. Father Nirun is a single parent with two boys, Nuk and Nerd. Locals say Nuk has all the makings of champion.

There are 10 Muay Thai boxing camps in Chang Mai, including the one where Nuk and three other boys train.

Muay Thai is different from the international equivalent. Boxers use their elbows, knees and feet as well as their fists. But the basic objective is the same: to knock out your opponent.

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The youngest boy here is five years’ old. His name is Focus. This is not an amateur operation – it is a business. The kids earn cash for fighting and for winning.

It looks like after-school fun, but it is much more serious than that. Paid to train and fight, the boys have already turned pro.

Yet an increasing number say boxing is inappropriate for young people. The health risks are simply too great – from head and facial injuries, to concussions, to serious neurological disorders.

This is not an amateur operation – it is a business. The kids earn cash for fighting and for winning.

But the man who runs the boxing camp believes the doctors are wrong. If you train hard, you don’t get hurt, he says. Train hard – no injuries. Simple.

But that view has been challenged by Thai academics who filmed child boxers – male and female – last year. The material, which was broadcast, is disturbing.

Some say banning the sport will not work because nobody will listen. They say the sport should be made safer by changing the rules.

But nobody here wants to tinker with the rules – certainly not the Chaiwang family.

10-year-old Nuk won his bout in a close-fought contest to claim the Superkid Championship belt. And he knows his family need his winnings.

There will be plenty more fights to come.