B.C.’s athletic commissioner granted expanded sanctioning powers

B.C.’s top combat sports official has new powers to scrutinize competitions that he says are raising athlete safety concerns.

An April order-in-council empowered B.C.’s athletic commissioner to sanction all amateur combat sport events in the province. Sanctioning means to give a fight permission to proceed, often by considering issues like matchmaking, refereeing and fighter safety precautions.

Previously, Athletic Commissioner Kelly Gilday only sanctioned specific sports, like kickboxing or mixed martial arts. However, he says a number of “unsanctioned, unregulated” amateur events have been “morphing” the rules of regulated sports into something like “continuous sparring” and there have been injuries.

“There’s new types of sports creeping in that kind of skirt the wording in the Criminal Code,” Gilday said. “So this now takes the grey out of the whole equation.

“For a lot of these events, there was no medical in place or there was no proper referee training in place.”

Injured fighter

Gilday’s expanded powers came six months after novice athlete Zhenhuan Lei allegedly suffered a debilitating brain injury at a “kick light” tournament, the 2023 Western Canadian Martial Arts Championships.

Lei, through his mother who holds a committeeship to manage his affairs, is suing a number of people and groups allegedly connected to the tournament. The claims haven’t been proven in court. The defendants named in the lawsuit have all denied wrongdoing.

The lawsuit claims the kick light competition was actually unsanctioned kickboxing and needed the commissioner’s blessing. The commissioner, who is not named as a defendant in the suit, told CBC News in February he didn’t sanction the tournament but wouldn’t say if he needed to.

A woman stands next to a young man in a wheelchair. She holds a photo of him before he was in a vegetative state.
Zhenhuan Lei sits in a wheelchair at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster as his mother, Ying Li, holds a photo of her son before his hospitalization. Li has filed a lawsuit alleging people and groups connected to an October 2023 martial arts tournament are responsible for an injury that led to her son’s vegetative state. (Liam Britten/CBC)

Gilday wouldn’t say if a specific incident spurred the rule changes. He said the changes have been in progress for some time and needed to be crafted correctly. 

The lawyer for Lei’s family believes “it would be nothing but a major coincidence” if Lei’s injury didn’t lead to the new rules.

“If there was any ambiguity in some of these amateur combat sports, what I would say is there is no room for ambiguity with the wording of this new order-in-council,” Erik Magraken said.

Leaders of three provincial sports organizations — Muaythai B.C., the B.C. Taekwondo Federation and the World Association of Kickboxing Organizations B.C. — said the Lei incident likely expedited the tighter rules. 

A man sits at a desk with papers and a laptop computer in an office.
The lawyer for Lei and his family, Erik Magraken, argues the ‘kick light’ tournament the injured athlete was competing in was in fact unsanctioned kickboxing. None of the lawsuit’s claims have been proven and all defendants are denying wrongdoing. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Greg Lamothe, vice-president of the kickboxing organization, said there have long been concerns about safety standards at unsanctioned light-contact events.

As a younger fighter, he competed in a number of them.

“I didn’t know better. They were a lot of fun, but we were really swinging on each other,” Lamothe said.

“Sometimes there’s people refereeing that are volunteering and they really shouldn’t be doing it.”

A man sits in front of martial arts training pads at a gym.
Greg Lamothe, vice-president of the World Association of Kickboxing Organizations B.C., believes the Lei injury drew more scrutiny to so-called “semi-contact” combat sports like kick light. (CBC News)

Tighter scrutiny

Lamothe says scrutiny of kick light and other semi-contact sports has increased since October and at least four unsanctioned tournaments have been cancelled.

Among those was the 2024 B.C. Open, a tournament planned for April with events like “kick light continuous karate.”

It was to be contested at a BCIT gym. The school says it cancelled the booking “in light of safety concerns” as well as a second booking from the same organizers, the 2024 Western Canadian Martial Arts Championships. Lei was injured in the 2023 edition of that tournament. 

Gilday wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit. Lana Popham, B.C.’s minister of tourism, arts, culture and sport, signed the order-in-council but her ministry directed all questions to Gilday.

“Changing any law takes time to get it right so that there are no loopholes,” Gilday said in an email. “We have done that with these changes.”

As for Lei, he has now returned to his home in Beijing with his mother. 

Magraken said he has been told his client is now able to open his mouth and blink his eyes in response to questions. He credits experimental therapies for the progress, paid for by an online fundraiser that has raised more than $37,000.

“So while it’s a long way from complete recovery, it’s that small step that gives some real encouragement,” Magraken said.


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