Inmates boxing their way to the 2012 Olympics

BANGKOK - For most inmates crammed into Thailand's notoriously brutal jails, the prospect of fame, fortune and early freedom is an impossible dream.

BANGKOK - For most inmates crammed into Thailand's notoriously brutal jails, the prospect of fame, fortune and early freedom is an impossible dream.

But for the convicted drug dealers, thieves and murderers who have taken up boxing at Bangkok's Thonburi prison, that dream could become a reality if they have what it takes to be a champion.

Thailand's prison bosses believe they may have a future Olympic gold medallist in their midst and are giving talented boxers from jails all over the country the chance to fight for their freedom.

"Every one of these boxers wants to be a champion," Bangkok corrections chief Preeda Nilsiri said during a sparring session within the tall, imposing walls of one of the city's toughest jails.

Already two former prisoners have fought their way out of jail and earned a comfortable living.

Others are determined to follow their lead by earning a place on the national team, allowing them to go out and compete in regional events and be rewarded with early release on parole if they do well.

"I want to go free and box for my country and I'm 100 percent sure I have what it takes to go to the Olympics," said Parinya Nopchaya, 26, a gap-toothed middleweight whose muscled body is almost entirely covered in crude jailhouse tattoos.

"I did wrong and this gives me a chance to do something with my life," said Parinya, who is four years into a 12-year sentence for stealing motorcycles.

Thonburi's boxers are offered privileged treatment and are allowed to train while other inmates toil all day in kitchens, on-site garment factories and sweltering laundry rooms.

They rise daily at 5.30am for 90 minutes of jogging while afternoons are spent weight-lifting and sparring under the watchful gaze of mean-looking guards equipped with hefty batons and dark sunglasses.

Hanging from the grey walls, which are decked with barbed wire, is a banner carrying pictures of former pickpocket Amnat Ruenroeng, a world championship bronze medallist and Beijing Olympic quarterfinalist and convicted drug dealer Samson Sor Siriporn, a women's world light-flyweight champion, with the words: "Superstars for the 2012 London Olympics".

"Amnat has inspired me," said Komsan Blathanam, a fierce-looking former jewellery thief with a shaven head and hardened features. "I want to follow his example."

Major Thong Thanakun, a top sports official in the Thai army, has sent some of his coaches to train the inmates and is impressed by what he has seen so far.

"There's a lot of work to be done, but some have the talent and potential to be champions. This is the best incentive for them to get out of prison," said Thanakun.

Somrod Kamsing, whose celebrity brother Somluck became Thailand's first Olympic gold medallist when he won the featherweight title in 1996, said the inmates appeared determined to succeed, although no one had caught his eye.

Convicted drug dealer Teerayuth Wanaprasit said the sport had given him a goal in life and reaching the Olympics meant more to him than his freedom.

"I want to win and going to the Olympics is a much bigger dream than getting out of here," said Teerayuth, a fearsome, tattoo-covered lightweight who says his boxing prowess has earned him respect among fellow inmates.

"I'm a changed man now. I want a life as a champion, not as a criminal." - Reuter