With the Winter Olympics wrapping up, sports are on the world’s radar more than ever, and those of us who are fight fans may end up asking the same question we’ll ask two years from now – why isn’t MMA in the Olympics? With Muay Thai only a few months ago receiving provisional recognition as an Olympic sport, and an increased push to add Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to the Games, why has there been little talk of doing the same for MMA?
Less than a decade ago MMA operated on the fringes of the athletic world. With the growth of the UFC, MMA has become widely recognizable to most of the developed world, a recognition that has fostered a widening talent pool and increasingly skilled fighters. Widely recognizable, however, does not equal ‘Olympic sport’, and MMA has several hurdles it will need to jump over for inclusion into the ancient Games. The sport’s international governing body, the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF), has begun the process for inclusion in the Olympics.
Formal steps MMA must take to be an Olympic sport:
International federation must be formed and then recognized by Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF, formerly SportAccord): The GAISF holds the keys to the IOC. As of now, IMMAF is waiting on acceptance by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in order to re-submit their application and have it accepted. Doping regulations have become increasingly stringent in MMA, but they are not nearly up to WADA’s standards; this could be a significant bump in the road for their Olympic hopes. In addition, the IMMAF is working out details with the WMMAA, another MMA governing body, as only one organization may be recognized. Once the GAISF accepts the IMMAF’s application, they remain out of the Olympics for five years,the time a sport must be recognized by the GAISF for before moving onto the next step.
Receive provisional recognition by the International Olympic Committee (IOC): This is where Muay Thai currently stands. They have gained provisional recognition, which means after three years, they can apply for full recognition. As a sport with provisional status, they receive IOC funding and can utilize IOC programs such as athlete development. Sports remain at this step for three years before being allowed to move on to competing in the Games.
Gain full recognition and approval for future Games by the IOC: After three years, the sport can petition for full recognition and inclusion in the Olympics. As the 2020 games are already set, 2024 is the soonest MMA could make an appearance. 2024 is also the year of the Paris Olympic Games, and amateur MMA is a sport not recognized in France, another area that could prove problematic.
In it’s quest to become an Olympic sport, MMA is likely to receive pushback from other fight disciplines that are currently Olympic sports, namely wrestling, judo, Tae Kwon Do, and boxing. MMA, a sport that, as its name suggests, encompasses all martial arts, provides a distinct competition to these sports. MMA’s more commercial popularity among the 40 and under demographic holds a wide appeal to the IOC, who’s seen its aging television audience result in reduced viewership each Olympic cycle.
MMA’s Olympic aspirations leave lingering questions. Will the beauty of the sport be overshadowed by its violence in the IOC’s eyes? Would Olympic MMA be limited to amateurs, like in boxing, or would professionals overtake the Olympic ranks? What happens to countries who don’t recognize amateur MMA, and thus have a more limited talent pool to draw from every four years? Are MMA’s amateurs skilled and prepared enough to compete in a way that will draw in viewers and elevate the status of mixed martial arts? It will be a long road before these questions can be answered. MMA still has several areas in which to prove itself before moving into the elevated ranks of Olympic sports. Countries and their fighters must agree on an international governing body and unified rules. More stringent doping standards must be put into place. And the sport’s athletes and fans must continue to promote MMA not for its violence, but its artistry. It is possible if not probable that we may see MMA in the 2028 Olympics, especially if Muay Thai proves to the IOC that taking a gamble on a combat sport was worth their while.