‘Sport Is Your Gang”: Thai boxing program appeals to impoverished young people

PHOENIX – For young people faced with poverty and unemployment, gang life can offer power and control. But the International Federation of Muaythai Associations wants Thai boxing to be the gang for disenfranchised youth.

The federation, in collaboration with the Peace and Sport Organization, has conducted the “Sport Is Your Gang” initiative since 2011, focusing on migrant communities. Without a clear plan for self-advancement, the organization says, young adults could turn to gang violence or other destructive behaviors.

The ultimate goal is to motivate a new generation of young people and inspire “positive self-development and a healthy lifestyle.” The federation believes this can be achieved by promoting sports as a tool to represent “a family, a team and a community.”

Mylin Xayaveth, the co-owner of Xayaveth Muay Thai Gym in west Phoenix, said muay thai is a spiritual experience that brings out honesty and builds self-confidence in participants, which is why it appeals to diverse communities.

“(Muay thai) unites people culturally, and that’s what makes it popular,” Xayaveth said. “Everybody and anybody can come together to practice and to watch, and it means a lot of things to people all over the world.”

That global profile should be raised at the Paris Olympics in 2024 because muay thai has been given provisional recognition as an Olympic sport.

Muay thai – Thai boxing – is considered Thailand’s national sport, and it has an extensive history and the backing of the country’s royal family. Initially devised for wartime, muay thai also is known as the Art of Eight Limbs. It eventually was passed down to commoners and has remained a fixture in the kingdom, surviving centuries of war in Southeast Asia and a revolution in 1932.

Muay thai rules and regulations were introduced steadily, and the sport caught on in Europe near the start of World War I. By the mid-20th century, the United States and Canada had small cadres of muay thai enthusiasts. Though Thai boxing emerged as a popular sport in the United Kingdom and Australia, it remains behind other similar sports that have a larger financial backing.

The sport’s international scope is effectively captured by the International Federation of Muaythai Associations’ “Sport Is Your Gang” initiative. The governing body has compiled a report with several case studies tracking the campaign’s implementation in countries across the globe.

In Argentina, muay thai has combated the social exclusion of children primarily living in the Bajo Flores barrio in central Buenos Aires. In Germany, three programs have been introduced. One was formed to assist violence-prevention efforts among ages 10 to 17. A second program procures donations for “social assistance” to benefit the homeless. Finally, a rehabilitation service is available for juveniles convicted of certain crimes, allowing them to learn muay thai rather than sit in jail.

Portugal is one of Europe’s top nations for muay thai training and competition, and Lisbon, the capital, has a “Sport Is Your Gang” initiative. Evening classes have been offered to ages 16 to 20.

In Cape Town, South Africa, the South African Amateur Muaythai Federation created the “Muaythai Against Drugs” program and brought it to troubled neighborhoods. Children as young as 8 can take advantage of a mentoring strategy centered on extensive training in martial arts values that are applicable to daily life, such as self-control and self-discipline.

The changes in younger people exposed to muay thai are well-documented, but Xayaveth predicts a larger shift, particularly in the U.S.

“I definitely see future growth of muay thai in the United States,” Xayaveth said. “Now we are having organizations come together and be able to put together more tournaments and titles that will invite countries from all over the world, and even though the United States is still far behind, we are putting in more effort to catch up with the rest of the world. With muay thai being added to the Olympic Games, that was definitely a game-changer.”

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