Russia, Iran and Uzbekistan. Not on the travel checklist of your average woman in the street. But these are just some of the countries Sue Latta 41, visited last year in her quest to champion the cause of women who compete at elite levels in Muay Thai.
A former world champion, Sue brims with passion and enthusiasm about the senior international roles she holds in the sport, and how she has campaigned to change the competition uniform to allow women of different religious beliefs to compete on an even footing. All this she does as a volunteer from her base in Singapore, where she lives with her family and works as a physical education teacher at Stamford American International School.
As a female, Sue stands out in the International Federation of Muaythai Amateur (IFMA). She is the first, and only, female among the ten vice-presidents, and is the inaugural chairperson of the IFMA Female Commission. These are big accomplishments in a male-dominated sport, but Sue is humble about her efforts. “The sport gave me strength, self-discipline and self-belief, so much so that I want to give something back. I don’t want people to see it as pugilistic: I want it recognised as a sport. I am a big advocate for women; I want women to do better through sport.”
Sue first became interested in Muay Thai about 20 years ago, while holidaying in Thailand. Then she went along to a training session with one of her martial-arts-loving brothers in their hometown, Palmerston North. She says she “simply fell for it”.
“Strangely enough, in a small town close by I found a fantastic coach who had international experience, and with his support I went the whole way.”
The whole way means from New Zealand champion to Oceania champion and then to world champion. Sue won her fourth world championship at the age of 34 and says it’s actually better to be older because it is a very stressful and tactical sport. “Your opponent is literally trying to beat you up, so the mental toughness is just as important as the physical. I loved the physical side, but also trying to figure out what my opponent was going to do.”
Women’s Muay Thai is very popular in Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Oceania and Scandinavia. “It tends to be strongest in countries where females have reached positions of authority in government, and males are generally comfortable with women in traditionally masculine roles – this reaches into sport.” But this is changing.
Competitors from religious faiths without dress restrictions have been free to compete at the top level, but those from countries such as Iran, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan have not. Most people would have thrown their hands up at this seemingly insurmountable obstacle. But Sue was motivated by numerous incidents, including one at the 2012 World Championships in Russia.
A British Muslim woman was made to take off her tights, because the judge did not understand her religious restrictions. After the fight, she ran crying from the ring to phone her parents and apologise. “It is a problem of equality for women; everyone should be able to compete regardless of religion, culture or nationality,” Sue says.
Over the course of four years, Sue has made numerous trips to speak with women in Iran, which is actively working to increase female participation in the sport. Iran and other Muslim countries finally resolved, at a meeting in Russia last year, that women can compete as long as they are attired in a new internationally recognised uniform. During a two-year trial of the uniform, these countries may bring teams to the international championships in Malaysia next year.
She’s also campaigned for female coaches to travel, and train, Muslim female athletes in their home countries. Until now the athletes options for improvement have been limited, as they were not allowed to train with male coaches.
Whilst this is a big achievement, Sue has more on her agenda: working with committees and manufacturers to design better safety gear for women; encouraging junior female development squads in all countries; and lobbying the International Olympic Committee for the inclusion of Muay Thai.
Sue says her husband, an officer in the New Zealand Armed Forces, and her two school-age children, have been very supportive of her Muay Thai commitments. “I believe it’s important to nurture their community-mindedness while they are young. I want them to understand how to stand up and champion the causes of others.”
What is Muay Thai?
A martial art, Muay Thai originated in Thailand and has a history stretching back hundreds of years. Introduced to the West in the early 20th century, it is described as the science of eight weapons. Eight points of body contact are allowed: leg kicks, elbows, knees and fist punches. It’s extremely physical because Muay Thai relies on an entire body movement to execute each kick, grapple, punch, elbow, clinch and block.