By Michael Reid
In case you missed it, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) provided provisional recognition to the International Federation of Muaythai Amateur (IFMA), welcoming the sport of Muaythai into the Association of IOC Recognized International Federations (ARISF). You can read about it here.
After pushing for over 20 years, IFMA’s welcome to ARISF is a huge development for amateur Muaythai. With ARISF recognition comes a whole host of benefits to the International Federation, as well as trickle down benefits to affiliated National Federations around the world. IFMA will receive annual funding and access to Olympic support programs, allowing them to further invest in the development of the sport worldwide. Affiliated National Federations now have additional clout in their efforts to receive recognition from their own National Olympic Committees, which can bring with it funding and other additional benefits.
What about in Canada?
Olympic Recognition vs Olympic Programme
Canada’s structure for amateur sports is built almost entirely around the Olympic and Paralympic Games; Olympic sports have a access to a greater number of resources than non-Olympic sports, and also have a much easier time accessing those resources. Non-Olympic sports do have access to a number of the same funding and resource structure, but must meet additional, stringent requirements that prevent eligibility.
But what exactly qualifies as an Olympic sport in Canada, and does IFMA’s provisional induction in to ARISF meet those requirements? Unfortunately, Canadian legislation and literature is set up to provide benefits to sports that are represented on the Olympic programme. This means that a sport needs to be in active rotation at the Olympic Games, similar to how Karate and Sport Climbing were announced for inclusion at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020, earlier this year. IFMA’s recognition as a member of ARISF is hugely symbolic of the sport’s progress, but has no legal bearing on Canada.
Where does this leave Canadian amateur Muaythai today?
Amateur Muaythai and the Criminal Code
Section 83 of the Criminal Code covers Prize Fighting, an offense punishable by conviction. The laws surrounding prize fighting have remained fairly consistent over the years, though in 2013 Section 83 of the Criminal Code was amended by Bill S-209 to define prize fighting as follows:
“An encounter or fight with fists, hands or feet between two persons who have met for that purpose by previous arrangement made by or for them.”
This broad definition has far reaching implications for combative sports across the country: Any agreement to meet with and strike another person- including demonstrations, exhibitions, club shows, and promoted events- was now in violation of Section 83 of the Criminal Code. This affects all combative sports with a striking component, such as boxing, taekwondo, karate, MMA, kickboxing, and of course, Muaythai. As you probably noticed, amateur boxing competitions did not become illegal overnight when Bill S-209 ascended to law. The bill also contained a number of provisions to exclude specific sports from Section 83 of the Criminal Code, the most significant excluding sports in which
“A contest between amateur athletes in a combative sport with fists, hands or feet held in a province if the sport is on the programme of the International Olympic Committee or the International Paralympic Committee and, in the case where the province’s lieutenant governor in council or any other person or body specified by him or her requires it, the contest is held with their permission.”
In short, any sport that is on the Olympic programme is exempt from Section 83 of Canada’s Criminal Code unless the province has specifically restricted its practice. This is simultaneously the most promising and disappointing aspect of the Olympic announcement: Muaythai under IFMA is recognized by the IOC, but still falls under prize fighting. In order to meet this exemption from Section 83, Muaythai would need to be in rotation at the Olympic Games, not just a recognized sport. As all of the new sports added to the Olympic programme for Tokyo 2020 have already been announced, the next opportunity for Olympic inclusion is at the 2024 summer games. This puts Muaythai at least 3 years away from fulfilling this first exemption from prize fighting.
In the intervening time, a second provision allows for an appropriate provincial authority to provide a sport exemption from Section 83 where
“A contest between amateur athletes in a combative sport with fists, hands or feet [is] held in a province with the permission of the province’s lieutenant governor in council or any other person or body specified by him or her.”
Such an authority is usually the provincial ministry in charge of amateur sports, such as Ontario’s Ministry of Tourism, Culture & Sport or Manitoba’s Sport Manitoba. These provincial agencies establish the recognition and exemption process that Provincial Sport Organizations (Muaythai Ontario, the Conseil du Muaythai Quebec) must meet in order to hold sanctioned amateur combative striking contests. The recognition process is similar across most provinces, barring a few variances. Ontario’s Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and Sport recently overhauled their recognition process as part of their commitment to establishing an enduring legacy from having hosted the 2015 Pan American games. This renewed focus from the ministry may be one of the best developments for amateur sports in recent years, and we hope to see this level of engagement maintained for years to come.
The hard work that Muaythai Canada’s affiliated Provincial Sport Organizations are putting in provide the best hope for building out a structure of safe competition across Canada.
Amateur Muaythai and Sports Canada
Sport Canada (a division of Heritage Canada) established the Sport Funding and Accountability Framework to fund National Federations that meet their eligibility criteria, and it is a hefty document (PDF) with a lot of requirements. Many of the requirements set out by Sport Canada mirror the language set out in Section 83 of the Criminal Code; things are easier for sports that are in Olympic Games rotation, and more stringent for those that are not. A National Federation for a sport that is not on the Olympic Programme must be operating in a combination of 8 provinces/territories (either by itself or through affiliated Provincial Sport Organizations), and maintain a minimum of 5000 individual members. This requirement becomes especially arduous when competitive participation of a sport is almost entirely prohibited by Section 83 of the Criminal Code.
There are other funding options available to amateur sport National Federations, however recognition under Sport Canada’s SFAF is often a requirement for other funding platforms such as the Ontario Sport Hosting program. By relying on the SFAF, the Olympic requirement trickles down into other funding criteria.
The result of these more stringent funding requirements means that organizations like Muaythai Canada must continue to build their operations relying on the passion and energy of volunteers rather than dedicated staff. It sets out a longer road for the sport’s development as the needs of an amateur sport organization are the same as any traditional business, and it must accomplish its goals with constrained resources.
Muaythai's Future in Canada
Despite the hurdles faced in a sport system gives preference to sports in the Olympic programme, the future is extremely bright for Muaythai in Canada.
The sport is growing in popularity, with Muaythai Canada holding the largest National Muaythai Championships to date. The sport is more organized than ever with PSOs such as the Conseil de Muaythai du Quebec, Muaythai Ontario, and the Amateur Muaythai Association of Manitoba working diligently to bring Muaythai in line with their province’s sport recognition criteria. Long term athlete development and training for excellence will see a renewed focus as Muaythai Canada builds out a coaching curriculum and updated training methodologies. Canada is improving its worldwide presence, having attended 4 different international tournaments in 2016 along, and looks forward to a future of providing athletes funding for competition expenses.
Muaythai is in the best position that it has ever been; the difficulties faced by the sport and organizations today pale in comparison to the years before. Countless hours of effort have been put in across generations of athletes, coaches, and administrators in order to provide the opportunities that we have in the sport today. As Muaythai Canada inches closer to its vision of leading the world in growing and developing Muaythai talent, we are reminded that the road ahead is long, but with achievements like Olympic recognition, we are getting closer.