My first introduction to female artistic gymnastics in Thailand was through the Din Daeng Gym: a loud, hot, chaotic place. Powder was flying everywhere and the floor was so crowded that gymnasts had to wait in line to take their tumble across the diagonal. At the time, there were few international school students. Most of the gymnasts there were from the sports school or from local schools in the area, training to become professional gymnasts.
When I went back this year, the gym was eerily quiet. Aside from the two male gymnastics teams, there was one coach with a small team of five female gymnasts. “Where have all the coaches gone?” I asked a parent. She replied, “They’ve all gone to teach in the international schools.”
What is gentrification? According to the Business Dictionary, it is “the process of wealthier residents moving to an area, and the changes that occur due to the influx of wealth.” In this case, the ‘area’ is the sports field of gymnastics. To be clear, Thai gymnastics is still successful at the national level: just this month, the national team swept the Singapore Open with 11 gold medals. But at the very top end of the field, gymnasts are trained by a select team of Thai and Chinese coaches. It is the pipeline to this top end that is being broken: places like Din Daeng used to be the training grounds for aspiring gymnasts from rural areas, using the sport as a means of socio-economic empowerment. But now, Din Daeng is conspicuously empty. The gymnasts who aspire to national success have had to find other gyms, and the coaches that used to teach there are now found in the fully equipped gymnasiums of international schools around Bangkok.
Bourdieu was the first to relate the field of sports to the field of social class. He wrote: “Class habitus defines the meaning conferred on sporting activity, the profits expected from it, and the social value accruing from the pursuit of certain sports.” Of gymnastics, he was more specific: “Gymnastics may be asked to produce either a strong body, bearing outward signs of strength – this is the working class demand. A healthy body – this is the bourgeois demand.”
The class habitus of gymnastics was undoubtedly bourgeois at its inception. According to the Gymnastics Association of Thailand, gymnastics was introduced in Thailand under the reign of King Rama V, who sent Thais to study abroad. The sport was first introduced into royal military training schools, and then into elite Thai high schools like สวนกุหลาบ (suan gulab). As it was introduced more widely into the education system, the class habitus of the sport changed, and with it the purpose: it became more competitive, more internationally oriented, more physically punishing – and less elite. In 1962, the Gymnastics Association was created and in 1968, it was inducted into the Fêdération Internationale de Gymnastique. After a few unsuccessful years in the international circuit, at the 1982 South East Asian (SEA) games, both male and female gymnastics teams were crowned gold. They were trained under Kamneung Amornrat, and Kraipon Boonpraesert, during the heyday of Thai gymnastics. They won 8 gold medals in the next SEA games, and at the SEA games after that, the men’s team once again took home gold. But as time went on that level of success was never seen again, and in fact until the 11 gold medals at the Singapore Open this year, there was a long period of silence from Thai gymnastics on the international stage.
Speaking with Coach Boonpraesert, coach of the 1982 teams, it seems that gymnastics is once more the domain of the bourgeois. “Coaches today are focused on giving their gymnasts instant success, because they know that their gymnasts won’t be in the sport for long. As a result, they sacrifice crucial basics, so they can have an easier job teaching.” Few gymnasts achieve the strong body required for national and international competitions without strong basics, but for most international school gymnasts that doesn’t matter. The profits expected from the sport are no longer material: it is the social value that counts.
But what of the gymnasts who used to train with these coaches, the ones for whom it was more than a temporary pursuit? They are forced to find new coaches – in a sport where promising gymnasts need consistency in coaching, having gotten used to certain techniques and training styles. From the dwindling pool of remaining coaches, many are undertrained. There are times when some train without coaches, which is inefficient at best, dangerous at worst. The toll of this gentrification is, it seems, borne by those who can least afford to leave the sport.
Yet, the story is not that simple. For the international school coaches, the sport remains the same: it is a means to both social and material profit, but in a way that no longer requires bleeding hands, broken arms and immense amounts of sweating in dusty gyms. One of the first coaches to work in an international school says, “Teaching here is considered one of the best jobs. Who teaches the local gymnasts now? The gymnasts I used to teach in Din Daeng do, until they can join an international school as well.” Most coaches come from similar backgrounds to the gymnasts that they used to teach, and they are setting an example.
The use of gymnastics to ascend the socio-economic ladder has not changed – it is the emphasis that has shifted. Where before a successful career path for a Thai gymnast was limited to the very small chance of winning a gold medal at the Asian Games or SEA Games, it now includes becoming a good enough coach to teach in an international school. After the dizzying heights of medal success, the pressure is no longer overwhelmingly placed on crafting the next generation of medal winners. Teaching at an international school may provide a more sustainable source of income, with a longer lifetime, and success is less precariously tied to the bodies of a few lifelong students and more to an overall body of work.
As international schools hire more and more coaches from local gymnasiums, the impact it is having on the local gymnastic community is not insignificant. But it is also not to be understood through the simplistic lens of class warfare: the class habits of gymnastics may have changed, but it is not to the detriment of everyone. The gentrification of gymnastics – primarily, female artistic gymnastics – forces us to rethink the value of sport. There is undoubtedly a powerful intrinsic value to gymnastics’ cult of perfection. But the sport is not an isolated art piece – it is embedded in a larger system of moving socio-economic parts. If the system works but the sport suffers, perhaps that is a necessary sacrifice.