Muay Thai in the Olympics: What Does “Provisional Recognition” Mean For the Sport?

Muay Thai in the Olympics? What does provisional recognition even mean? When will you get to see the sport in the Games? All these questions answered and more.

Edit: On July 20, 2021 at the 138th General Assembly Of the International Olympic Committee, Muay Thai was voted to become fully recognized by the IOC.

In mid-June 2021, articles started popping up about how Muay Thai received provisional recognition by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). But for those who have been around the scene for a few years, it might have seemed like deja-vu.


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Not news, but more relevant now

In December 2016, the International Federation of Muaythai Amateur (IFMA) was granted provisional recognition by the IOC. This means that Muay Thai was ergo given provisional recognition as well. The most recent wave of articles in circulation about this topic was not shining light on something new happening. But, it’s much more relevant now with the Olympic Games coming up next month in Tokyo.

What does “provisional recognition” mean?

Provisional recognition” means Muay Thai could be included in future Olympic Games. For three years after getting provisional status, Muay Thai’s international governing body is eligible to receive funding ($25,000/yr) and special grants. The purpose of this money is to help the sport build, set, and sustain a foundation should it be included in the Olympics. The governing body of Muay Thai is now the former IFMA merged with the World Muaythai Council (WMC), and rebranded in 2019 as the International Federation of Muaythai Associations (IFMA).

What took so long? Why is it significant now?

Muay Thai first applied for provisional status back in 2006. What was supposed to take around six months turned into a 10-year process of getting recognition.

It’s been a long process that’s been 10 years in the making so far. There are some theories as to why Muay Thai, along with some other types of sports, got recognition in 2016.

The last Summer Olympics took place in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. And the numbers for the viewership were disappointing – “primetime viewership was down 17% from four years earlier in London and, more importantly, viewership among 18- to 45-year olds… had plummeted by a full 25% (Vice).

Advertisers regard the age group to be their target audience, so it was bad news for the network. It seemed that the IOC wanted to win back this audience by including sports that had a younger reach – Muay Thai included.

As stated above, Muay Thai’s current provisional status is more relevant right now. This year, right before the start of the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games, the IOC will vote for full recognition. Other sports up for full recognition include kickboxing, sambo, lacrosse, and cheerleading.

Requirements for Full Recognition

Between getting provisional recognition and applying for full approval at the end of the three-year period, Muay Thai is expected to work on getting Olympic approval.

To get full recognition, the sport is must adhere to Olympic standards of anti-doping and have anti-corruption measures set in place. For the IOC to approve Muay Thai to have full recognition, they must also believe that the statutes and activities of Muay Thai are in accordance with the Olympic Charter (basically meaning it is an international sport and has a history of events with international competitors).

Muay Thai also needs to demonstrate that it’s widely practiced – the cutoff is by populations of men in 75 countries and by women in 40 countries, on three continents. At the end of 2016, Muay Thai had more than 135 national federations and almost 400,000 registered athletes registered in IFMA.

The Long Road (Thus Far) to the Olympics

The road to getting provisional recognition by the IOC has been a long one. The main international body to thank is IFMA. They’ve been in the industry for close to 30 years. Extracted from their website, this is the timeline of how their efforts have progressed the sport.

What Happens if Muay Thai gets Full Recognition?

If Muay Thai does get full recognition, it does not guarantee the sport in the next Olympic Games. To be in the Summer Games, there needs to be a minimum of 50 affiliated national federations. For the Winter Games, 25. These national federations need to span at least three continents.

The earliest Muay Thai could be fully recognized and seen in the Olympic Games is by 2024.

And if Muay Thai does make its Olympic debut, there’s no guarantee it will stick around, either. “Sports that have already been part of the Games are periodically reviewed to determine whether they should be retained. The Olympic Programme Commission notes that problems have arisen when trying to find venues to accommodate some sports’ specific needs, such as baseball and softball, which were discontinued from Olympic programming after the 2008 Beijing Games. When choosing sports to include in the program, the IOC must take into consideration media and public interest, since these are a key drive behind the Olympic Games, but must simultaneously manage costs” (Britannica).

Pros and Cons of Muay Thai Being an Olympic Sport

Taekwondo first made its Olympics debut in 1988

There are numerous outcomes to Muay Thai becoming an Olympic Sport.

  • There will be a surge of popularity for Muay Thai. The sport will be shown to every single country in the world.
  • Muay Thai athletes will receive funding. They may also receive “medal bonuses” from their countries
  • Because “Olympification” requires the sport to be modified to be viewer-friendly, fights will not be five rounds.
  • IFMA, the governing body of Muay Thai, runs its events with three-round fights and full gear (gloves, headgear, shinguards, elbow pads, chest protector).
  • Athletes will be expected to be active during all the rounds due to the amateur scoring set.

Some are excited to see the sport get the worldwide recognition and respect it deserves. Others are concerned about Muay Thai becoming extremely watered-down, using Taekwondo as an example.

Whether each of these is considered a benefitting or detrimenting factor to the sport is up to you to decide. What are your thoughts?

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Fighter, social media manager, content creator and writer. Currently training and fighting full time in Bangkok. Originally from NYC.

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