Sports Special Issue Research article
EVIDENCE OF NATIONALISTIC BIAS IN MUAYTHAI
1Newman College of Higher Education, UK
2Liverpool John Moores University, UK
3University of Wolverhampton, UK
Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2006) 5 (CSSI), 21
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is a combat sport with a growing international profile but limited
research conducted into judging practices and processes. Problems
with judging of other subjectively judged combat sports have caused
controversy at major international tournaments that have resulted
in changes to scoring methods. Nationalistic bias has been central
to these problems and has been identified across a range of sports.
The aim of this study was to examine nationalistic bias in MuayThai.
Data were collected from the International Federation of MuayThai
Amateur (IFMA) World Championships held in Almaty, Kazakhstan September
2003 and comprised of tournament results from 70 A-class MuayThai
bouts each judged by between five and nine judges. Bouts examined
featured 62 competitors from 21 countries and 25 judges from 11 countries.
Results suggested that nationalistic bias was evident. The bias observed
equated to approximately one round difference between opposing judges
over the course of a bout (a mean of 1.09 (SE=0.50) points difference
between judges with opposing affilations). The number of neutral judges
used meant that this level of bias generally did not influence the
outcome of bouts. Future research should explore other ingroup biases,
such as nearest neighbour bias and political bias as well as investigating
the feasibility adopting an electronic scoring system.
WORDS: MuayThai, judging, nationalistic bias.
One combat sport with a rapidly growing international profile is
MuayThai. The national sport of Thailand is increasing in popularity
with fights regularly screened on satellite and terrestrial television
channels. Although professional MuayThai is seen more as a spectator
rather than a participation sport, amateur participation and competition
is growing in popularity with an estimated one million participants
worldwide (Gartland et al.,2001).
More than sixty-nine countries from five continents sent teams to
compete in the 2004 Amateur World Cup (IFMA, 2005)
and a 100 counties are predicted to attend the 2006 amateur world
championships (Tapsuwan, 2005).
The sport involves a style of boxing where competitors try to win
bouts by scoring points, knockouts or stoppages using full contact
blows. Legal techniques include a variety of punches, elbows, knees
strikes, kicks and grappling techniques. Target areas for strikes
include anywhere on the body except for deliberate strikes to the
groin area. All bouts are held in an international style boxing
ring with competitors using six, eight or ten ounce boxing gloves.
Amateur competition has thirteen weight classes and the professional
sport has eighteen (WMC, 1995).
Professional fights involve five three-minute rounds punctuated
by two-minute rest periods, while international level amateur bouts
involve four two-minute rounds with one-minute rest periods. All
bouts are controlled by a referee from inside the ring, and scored
by three judges in professional fights, and up to five judges plus
a jury panel in amateur competitions. While those competing at professional
level wear limited protective equipment that includes boxing gloves,
mouth guard and groin guard, those competing in amateur competition
wear headguards, body protectors, elbow pads and shin-guards. In
the amateur sport, competitors are identified by the colour of the
protection, shorts and vests worn; these are coloured either blue
or red depending on the corner the boxers are competing out of for
a particular bout.
The professional sport is well established with a notable history;
references to the activity dating back to the eleventh century and
written records of formal competition dating back to the sixteenth
century (Wongbandue, 1998).
However, amateur MuayThai is a rather recent innovation being introduced
with the formation of the Amateur MuayThai Association (AMTA) in
1990. The organisation of this body and its international arm, the
International Federation of MuayThai Amateur (IFMA), led to MuayThai
being included as a demonstration sport in the Asian games (Prowsree,
Judges in MuayThai have to make similar types of decisions to those
made in professional boxing. However, there are differences, particularly
in the professional sport. In MuayThai, judges have to consider
several factors to decide who wins a fight. Firstly, judges have
to make a comparison of the number of legal blows each contestant
lands on legitimate targets and decide who landed the greater number
of blows (Boxing Board of Sport, 2002).
Secondly, judges need to decide on the relative power of attacks
hitting their target (Boxing Board of Sport, 2002).
Along with the number of blows landing, the perceived strength of
blows is also considered in deciding the winner of a fight.
The amateur sport uses a '20 point must system' this requires a
judge to award 20 points to the competitor they consider to have
won the round and a lower score (usually 19 points) to the loser.
At the end of four rounds, each judge totals their scorecard to
decide the winner. If the points they awarded are equal, judges
award the decision the fighter who they feel has tried to attack
the most. If this is similar, judges are directed to award a win
to the boxer who they feel has displayed the best style or has shown
the best defence (IFMA, und).
The professional sport uses a 'ten point must system' similar in
principle to the amateur system: the winner of the round is awarded
10 points and the loser awarded less; usually 9 points. However,
unlike amateur MuayThai, professional fights in Thailand are judged
as a whole with individual rounds not having equal emphasis. This
allows judges to make a retrospective assessment of the effect of
cumulative blows over the early rounds. Emphasis is given to a fighter
finishing the strongest over the last three rounds (Myers, 2005).
With fights judged as a whole rather than in equal round units,
when there is a clear difference between fighters the fight is usually
scored 49:47. Closer fights are scored 49:48. It is usual for professional
judges in Thailand to make notes during a fight and complete the
scoring for rounds after the fight has finished. However, this is
impossible in championship bouts where scorecards are collected
after each round. It is also usual in Thailand for a judge to avoid
awarding a total score of 50 points for a boxer; the maximum score
for a fight usually being 49 points (although it is possible for
a fighter to score 50). This adjustment is to give credit to a boxer
who tries to fight, but has not managed to win.
Bias in judging
No published studies have been conducted specifically on MuayThai
judging and evidence of any problems with judging bias is purely
anecdotal. However, there is enough evidence from other subjectively
judged sports to suggest that similar problems could surface in
international competition. Subjective sports in major international
competitions such as the Olympic Games have not escaped judging
controversies with many of these the result of nationalistic bias.
Several major judging biases have been established empirically in
subjectively judged sports (Vanden Auweele et al., 2004).
Bias has been identified in combat other sports. Balmer et al.,
found evidence of bias in European championship boxing, where a
home advantage was evident. The authors found that a 'home' boxer
tends to be awarded closely fought rounds more often than the 'away'
boxer. While some types of bias are not obvious across all sports,
the 'patriotism effect' is evident across a wide range of sports
in the form of nationalistic bias. Nationalistic bias, has been
identified in figure skating (Campbell and Galbraith, 1996;
Seltzer and Glass, 1991;
Whissell et al., 1993),
gymnastics (Ansorge and Scheer, 1988;
Ste Marie, 1996),
ski jumping (Zitzewitz, 2002)
and rhythmic gymnastics (Popovic, 2000).
These sports require judges to make subjective decisions to decide
outcome similar to MuayThai.
Having identified bias, subjectively judged sports have adopted
different approaches to adjusting scoring to avoid or lessen problems
of nationalistic bias. Some of these approaches have been statistical
approaches, others technological. For example, several proposals
were made to try to reduce bias in ice-skating. These included:
increasing the number of judges from 9 to 14; using median scores
to rank skaters; and using trimmed means to try to control the influence
of extreme scores on overall position (Zitzewitz, 2002).
On the other hand, two combat sports, Taekwondo and amateur boxing,
opted for solutions that involve technology.
In 1990, after serious problems with judging at the Seoul Olympic
Games in 1988 (Maese, 2004),
the Association Internationale de Box (AIBA) made electronic scoring
(the Chowdhry Scoring System) compulsory for international competitions
This system requires each of the five judges at ringside to use
a keyboard with 4 buttons: red and blue 'point keys' for recording
scoring blows, and red and blue 'W keys' for recording warnings.
When a judge sees a scoring blow they press a button and computer
software records the point awarded and opens a one-second window
giving time for other judges to confirm the score. If three or more
judges press the same key within that second, the score is "accepted"
for that boxer and recorded. Bouts are awarded to the boxer who
has the highest total of blows (AIBA, 2003).
Taekwondo, another Olympic combat sport that involves kicking as
well as punching, also decided to use technology in a campaign to
improve its reputation after judging problems. The World Taekwondo
Federation commissioned electronic protective equipment that registers
a score when contact is made. When electronic scoring is used, the
electronic body armour automatically records body blows. Head blows
are recorded by two judges using an electronic scoring instrument
similar to the one used in amateur boxing. One point is awarded
for attack on trunk protector, two points for attack on face and
an extra point awarded if the contestant is knocked down and receives
a count from the referee (WTF, 2005).
Along with electronic scoring, the rules of Taekwondo make a specific
reference to avoiding using any officials with the same nationality
as either of the competitors being assigned to a contest. However,
an exception is made when there are not enough referees or judges
to make this possible (WTF, 2005).
Given that Olympic recognition is a major goal for MuayThai's international
development (Tapsuwan, 2005),
an investigation into judging would contribute to the sport's credibility.
This is particularly pertinent given the major changes made to scoring
in Olympic combat sports. The purpose of this study was to determine
the level of nationalistic bias in international MuayThai judging
and to explore possible strategies to reduce bias. It was hypothesised
that evidence of nationalistic bias will be observed.
were collected over a one-week period from scorecards from the 2003
International Federation of MuayThai Amateur (IFMA) World Championships
in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The competition was held in the Culture and
Sports Palace from September 1st until September 9th 2003. The competition
included 44 countries competing for 54 medals across 14 weight classes.
The competition comprised of A-class and B-class competitions; A-class
featuring the world's top competitors and the B-class for less experienced
competitors from countries with less experience in the sport. The
data for this study comprised of tournament results from 70 A-class
MuayThai bouts, each judged by between five and nine judges. The
bouts featured 62 competitors from 19 countries and 25 judges from
We examined nationalistic bias at the level of individual judges
scores for each bout.. As a given bout could have non-neutral judges
sharing nationality with either boxer, judges were categorised as
red (sharing nationality with the red corner boxer), blue (sharing
nationality with the blue corner boxer) or neutral (sharing nationality
with neither boxer). Scores for each judge in each bout were summed
for each of the four rounds, where minus values were assigned to
scores in favour of the boxer competing out of the blue corner and
positive values assigned to scores in favour of boxers competing
out of the red corner boxer. For example, if a judge had a boxer
from the red corner winning three rounds and losing one, this would
result in a score of +2. Conversely, if a judge scored a boxer fighting
out of the blue corner all four rounds, this would result in a score
of -4. In total, the dataset was made up of 2,028 difference scores
over the 70 bouts. Of these 70 bouts, only the 43 with at least
one judge sharing nationality with at least one of the competitors
were used in this analysis.
These data were analysed using a multilevel model, with judges scores
fitted as a normal response variable. Further details of this type
of model can be found in Goldstein, 2003.
In the current study, we fit a simple two level model with scores
nested within bouts, and bout included as a random effect. Importantly,
this controls for what are likely to be highly variable differences
between boxer's abilities, acknowledging that judges scores are
more likely to be similar within than between bouts. This type of
approach is common where observations
are clustered within groups (for example pupils within schools,
or people within households) and these observations are likely to
be affected by these clusters, which is certainly likely to be the
case in the current study. Accounting for such clustering avoids
tests that are often too liberal for level-2 (bout level) covariates
and typically result in falsely rejecting the null hypothesis too
often (Gibbons & Hedeker, 1997).
The model had a single categorical predictor with three categories
'red' (judge shared nationality with the red corner boxer), 'blue'
(judge shared nationality with the blue corner boxer) or 'neutral'
(judged shared nationality with neither boxer).
Second, we examined the impact of any observed bias on the overall
outcome of all bouts in the Almaty tournament and discuss control
of nationalistic bias.
It is hypothesised that nationalistic bias is observed, although
the overall is likely to be dictated by the ratio of the neutral
to same nationality judges.
bias - judges scores within bouts
Of 70 bouts at the Almaty tournament, 43 (61.4%) had at least one
non-neutral judge. Table 1
shows output from the multilevel model of judge's scores on the
basis of whether or not they shared nationality with one of the
boxers. Note, that negative scores indicate judging in favour of
boxers competing out of the blue corner and positive scores indicate
judging in favour of boxers competing out of the red corner (see
analysis section). The model also includes a random bout parameter,
again, as discussed in the 'analysis' section.
Firstly, the intercept value of -0.30 suggested that on average,
judges sharing nationality with blue corner boxers (our reference
category) scored these boxers around a third of a round better than
boxers competing out of the red corner on average over the course
of a bout. Of more interest though, is how scores changed with judge's
nationality. Secondly, neutral judges typically scored boxers competing
out of the red corner two- thirds of a round (0.64) better than
judges sharing nationality with boxers competing out of the blue
corner over the course of a bout. Thirdly, judges sharing nationality
with boxers competing out of the red corner typically scored such
boxers over a round better than judges sharing nationality with
boxers competing out of the blue corner over the course of a bout,
a statistically significant difference. The equation below provides
a simple summary of the model;
score = -0.30 + 0.64 'neutral' + 1.09 'red'
a judge who shared nationality with a boxer competing out of the
blue corner typically scored 0.3 rounds in favour of those boxers,
a 'neutral' judge, who didn't share nationality with either boxer
typically scored 0.34 rounds in favour of boxers competing from
the red corner (suggesting boxers competing from the red corner
were marginally superior overall) and a judge sharing nationality
with the boxer in the red corner typically scored 0.74 rounds in
favour of boxers competing out of that corner.
bias and bout outcome
Despite evidence of nationalistic bias, this does not guarantee
that that the outcome of bouts will change. A simple, logical solution
to the issue would be to simply remove non-neutral judges. This
also allows examination of the impact of bias at bout level. Table
2 summarises the outcome of the 43 bouts with at least one non-neutral
judge; using all scores for bouts but removing the scores awarded
by judges who shared nationality with boxers competing out of the
red or blue corners and using only neutral judges.
Table 2 shows only modest changes
in outcome when removing non-neutral judges. Effectively, two bouts
would change in outcome; one moving from a draw to the red corner
boxer winning and one blue corner win moving to a red corner win.
Essentially, non-neutral judges decisions impacted on the outcome
of two of forty-three bouts where
they were present, or two of seventy bouts in the entire Almaty
However, that is not to say that nationalistic bias does not have
the potential to impact more severely on outcome. Table
3 examines the seventeen bouts with both red and blue judges
and shows large differences.
The fact that the scores of judges who share nationality with boxers
competing from the red and blue corners do not impact on the outcome
is not a case of their scores balancing each other out (removing
judges who share nationality with either red or blue boxers still
results in 7 blue and 10 red corner wins), but is simply a consequence
of same nationality judges not having enough judges (essentially
a majority would be required if neutral judges are fairly consistent)
for their scores to have real impact. Bias is clearly present, though
same nationality judges' minority status reduces the impact of this
bias. Moreover the natural control exerted by relatively large numbers
of judges in the Almaty tournament also reduces the impact of unusual
neutral judge scores, which could in turn potentially allow same
nationality judges to have a greater influence.
aim of this study was to explore national bias in MuayThai. The
results suggest there was evidence of nationalistic bias in judge's
scores at the 2003 World Championships. These findings are consistent,
to varying degrees, with the findings of other subjectively judged
sports (Ansorge and Scheer, 1988;
Campbell and Galbraith, 1996;
The bias observed in MuayThai equated to approximately one round
difference between opposing judges (i.e. one sharing nationality
with one boxer and one with the other) over the course of a bout.
However, although there was evidence of nationalistic bias at the
championships, the impact of this bias on the outcome of bouts appeared
diluted by the large numbers of judges (i.e. there were few bouts
where nationalistic bias had an impact on the final result). Although
five judges are placed around the ring at all international IFMA
championships, judges' scorecards are vetted by a jury panel that
sits together and judges the fights (IFMA, und). This means in practise
that each fight is judged by between five and nine judges in international
competitions. In essence, judges sharing nationality with boxers
at the Almaty tournament were effectively outnumbered by neutral
judges, meaning that in real terms, the overall outcome of bouts
was rarely influenced.
Although the impact of nationalistic bias on bout outcomes was diluted,
the outcomes of five of the bouts were decided on by the verdict
of a single judge. This allows the possibility that nationalistic
bias could have played a role in the outcome of these five bouts.
However, this only occurred in bouts that were judged by fewer than
eight judges. This suggests that the current system can lessen the
impact of nationalistic bias as long as eight or more judges from
different nationalities are used to judge each bout. Moreover, many
countries taking part in the championships did not send judges because
of cost; this may have had the effect of magnifying bias associated
with the host country.
To avoid problems of nationalistic bias, MuayThai may need to consider
adopting some kind of electronic scoring system. However, the method
used in amateur boxing would not be practical for MuayThai. Problems
with judges failing to record all blows delivered in bouts, would
only be compounded in MuayThai where judges have to record kicks,
knees and elbows along with punches. On the other hand, a variation
of the system employed in Taekwondo could prove to be suitable.
Although it would not address all of the scoring issues in MuayThai,
the use of body armour to record kicks and knees to the body electronically
and judges recording strikes and kicks to the head and
legs would be worth exploring. By using this system and reversing
the points awarded in Taekwondo so body kicks and knees were worth
two points and head (and leg strikes) one point, the system would
enable amateur scoring to have some similarities with scoring in
the professional MuayThai. If this system were to be adopted, different
impact tolerances would need to be set for the different weight
classes. However, this would not necessarily address the problem
of recording scores for techniques that currently score highly like
unbalancing an opponent with a front push kick, that involves good
timing rather substantial.
Future research will investigate the impact of other ingroup biases.
The potential for nationalistic bias to be compounded by other ingroup
biases is real. In this study 46 (65.7%) bouts were judged by at
least one judge from a neighbouring country. Where biased judges
have the opportunity to outnumber neutral officials the outcome
could be seriously biased.
shows that nationalistic bias is present in international MuayThai
judging. However, the number of neutral judges currently used to
judge bouts at world championship level means that this level of
bias generally does not influence the outcome of bouts. Our results
suggest that the officials responsible for assigning judges to judging
panels need to consider the nationality profile of panel members
for each bout carefully.
bias is evident in international amateur MuayThai judging.
impact on the outcome of bouts is limited.
practice of using a large number of neutral judges appears to
reduce the impact of nationalistic bias.
Tony D MYERS
in Sport Psychology, Department of PE and Sports Studies, Newman
College of Higher Education, UK.
Degrees: Cert Ed, MA. PhD candidate
Research interests: Judging bias, MuayThai, applied sport
Nigel J. BALMER
Research Associate, Research Institute for Sport and Exercise
Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University, UK.
Degrees: BSc, PhD
Research interests: Home advantage, judging bias, statistics/research
Alan M. NEVILL
Professor, School of Sport, Performing Arts and Leisure, and
the Research Institute of Healthcare Sciences, Univ. of Wolverhampton,
Degrees: BSc, PhD, PGCE.
Research interests: Modelling heath-related indices and
sports performance data (e.g., world records), home advantage,
reliability and stability.
of Sports Studies and Director of Research, Department of Physical
Education and Sports Studies, Newman College of Higher Education,
Degrees: BSc, PGCE, MA, PhD.
Research interests: Arousal, social facilitation, fatigue,
performance, lifestyle and health habits.