Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Beijing Olympics and Tae kwon do

As the closing ceremony of the 2008 Beijing summer Olympics games plays out and Boris Johnson, the incompetent nincompoop, gets ready to receive the Olympic flag and start the countdown to London 2012, I have been reflecting on the Olympics and in particular taekwondo. 

The games have been a huge success for China and Beijing, as well as for me personally. I have found myself glued to the TV or computer screen watching sports I would have formerly considered not worthy of my time. Judo has found a place in my heart, as has badminton, weightlifting and even handball and although I won’t watch them with any real gusto after the Olympics has finished, I will look forward to them in four years time. Even baseball (which has been dropped for London 2012) had me enthralled as Korea marched to the gold medal, crushing all in their path, which included the USA, Japan and Cuba twice! 

As a Welsh person I sometimes find it hard to watch and support team GB, after all most of the athletes are from another country and Wales isn’t represented on the union flag. The Olympics is a time when England swallow up the best athletes from Wales and Scotland and call the whole thing team GB, which to the rest of the world means England anyway. I don’t NOT support team GB, I mean I would prefer them to win over almost any other nation I just feel a large amount of impartiality when it comes to them. I am not proud of how I feel but I am not apologetic either. It is the way I feel and I make no excuses for that.

I have however found myself cheering for Korea, my temporary home. I could not have been more pleased when Korea completed a clean sweep of gold medals in the taekwondo, winning the maximum 4 gold they were allowed to compete for. In the same way I was almost jumping for joy when Jang Mi Ran was weight lifting her way to Olympic gold, breaking several world and Olympic records in the process. The same goes for Choi Min Ho in the judo, the men’s and women’s archery teams and the other athletes from team Korea. Maybe I will feel different in four years time if I am in the UK at the time of the Olympics. 

Taekwondo took pride of place for me and was the event I look forward to the most. As a practitioner of tae kwon do (shamefully mispronounced ‘Tai know do’ by many including British bronze medalist Sarah Stevenson) and as a resident in Korea, the home of taekwondo, I eagerly anticipated the taekwondo and really hoped for Korean victories, even if they came at the expense of team GB.  My teacher, an 8th Dan master who has dedicated his life to taekwondo, has probably been the most influential force in this change or realignment of allegiances. His life has always been and is still dedicated to teaching and promoting taekwondo and I know how much it would mean to him for Korea to sweep the board.

This Olympics marks the third consecutive games that taekwondo has been an official medal sport and thankfully it has been confirmed on the roster for London 2012. Taekwondo is the most widely practised marital art on the planet but it has plenty of critics. People often say that it is boring because fighters, reluctant to lunge at their opponents for fear of a counter attack, often stand and wait for their opponent to make a move. This has been addressed and a penalty system is in place for fighters unwilling to fight. I have to admit to being bored during occasional bouts when fighters are over cautious, but then if you had been kicked several times you might be cautious too.  

Taekwondo isn’t immune to controversy either and Beijing has proved to be no exception. Before the games had even begun a quota system was introduced limiting each NOC (national Olympic committee) to 4 fighters, a move which prompted groans from Korea as it is believed to be a way to limit Korea sweeping the board and winning the majority of medals. They currently stand on top of the Olympic taekwondo medal table by winning three gold and one silver at Sydney in 2000, two gold and two bronze in Athens in 2004 and four gold out of a maximum of four competitors in Beijing. The official line is that this move is intended to allow a majority of NOCs to participate but the WTF admitted that some of the better athletes in the world may miss out. 

The scoring system has also come in for criticism this time around and while it is no surprise it is a little bit sad. Spectators and competitors have complained that the scoring system is fundamentally flawed. Currently judges sit at each of the four corners of the competition area and score as they see fit. Sometimes judges will be unsighted; hence the others, and sometimes they will deem a kick to have not been accurate enough or powerful enough or won’t score it for another reason. As you can imagine some of the losers of matches were a little upset that a kick had not been scored or that a foul had been awarded or not awarded, ad infinitum. Often these complaints are fed to the waiting media who lap it up, spin it around and publish it as a travesty of justice. Two British taekwondo jins were involved in just this kind of controversy. Aaron Cook, a 17 year old from Doncaster talked about the standard of judging and even went so far as to claim that on any other day a fight he lost 4-1 he would have won by 5 points. He went on to say that he understood that the crowd would be behind the Chinese fighter, Guo Zhu, but he didn’t expect the scoring to be as bad as it was. Aside from the downright disrespectful implication that the judges would be swayed by a crowd, it was interesting to note that were Japanese, Ukrainian, Indonesian and Portuguese. Whilst it has been said that some judges are not properly qualified and are put in to promote globalism in taekwondo I still find it sad that they are so openly cristicised. 

More controversy involved Sarah Stevenson and another Chinese fighter, Zhong Chen, who won their fight. Team GB protested and after viewing video evidence the decision was overturned and Stevenson was put through to the semi, at the expense of Chen. The Chinese team were very gracious apparently but the Chinese crowd would not forgive the Brits for pulling Chen and they booed and finally cheered when she went down in the semi. 

The worst incident of controversy involved Cuban, Angel Valodia Matos. He was disqualified for taking more than the one minute allowed for dealing with injuries. It is a very harsh rule and seemingly inflexible but rules are rules. Unfortunately his response was to kick the referee, Swedish Chakir Chelbat, to the head, apparently drawing blood; he then proceeded to push another referee.

There were other examples of bad sporting behaviour, notably from the, I hope ironically titled, ‘First family of Taekwondo’ the Lopez family from the USA. Diana Lopez, who arrived in Beijing courtesy of a controversial points win which is still the centre of an internet campaign, ended up winning a bronze medal. As she stood on the podium, ashen faced, she held up her medal, looked at it with what I can only call disdain, before letting it drop to her chest. Another Lopez, her brother Mark, trotted into the arena, bobbing his head like an arrogant rap star before getting beaten, after which he defiantly trotted back out again in a similar fashion before lodging a complaint. 

Whilst I can only try to understand that they have trained very hard for a very long time to get to Beijing and the thought of being so close and missing out must be hard to take, they really need to try and remember what the Olympics signifies and what it means and, as taekwondo ambassadors they need to reconnect with some of the tenants of the sport they obviously love. ‘Chong Shin’, which means sportsmanship or fair play, has been sadly lacking from some athletes during these games and I am sometimes ashamed that they are associated with taekwondo. I hate that taekwondo, a sport I love, is treated, along with the judges, philosophy and tradition with such disdain. It has been said that these practitioners practise the sport of taekwondo and not the art. It is claimed that some of these Olympic athletes are promoted rapidly through the ranks up to competition level and they really do not have a grounding in the art, which is a shame but might just explain some of the behaviour we have seen.

As I have mentioned taekwondo has been confirmed as a sport for the 2012 games in London and the WTF have announced plans to introduce an electronic scoring system next year, in preparation for the games and to try and eradicate some of this ill feeling that goes around at every major championship. This should appease some but others will no doubt be unhappy about something else, the electronic scoring system maybe? Maybe the answer is to simply make sure the judges are of the highest quality, maybe have a separate panel scoring the fight, which would be consulted if the judges disagree or have the fight over a few more rounds and score it like a boxing match with points awarded for round victories, not individual hits.   

My personal suggestion to make taekwondo more interesting and more appealing to a wider audience is to introduce poomse. These rhythmic forms are not only an essential part of taekwondo but are a necessary part of any belt grading. At the opening of the Seoul summer games in 1988 a mass poomse style demonstration was held to introduce taekwondo as a demonstration sport. Poomse would introduce another element to the sport, it would give practitioners an opportunity to show another integral but often overlooked part of taekwondo and it would allow the world to see that taekwondo is more than just what the world currently see at the Olympics. Poomse would demonstrate a wide variety of kicks, strikes and blocks as well as showing the graceful and controlled movements that are absent from sparring competition. 

Poomse is currently showcased as an individual and team event all over the world at regular tournaments and could easily be part of a team competition with or without sparring, much like table tennis and badminton are at the Olympics. If we can have gymnastics with a ball and a ribbon, synchronised swimming, two kinds of volleyball, softball and BMX, the why not poomse? 

Above all an for the sport to survive as an Olympic event some of the taekwondo spirit needs to be reintroduced to the competitors, otherwise London 2012 may well be the last the world sees of taekwondo. There are other sports that would jump at the chance to showcase on the biggest of sporting stages. 

Maybe electronic scoring is a start but above all these medal and glory hungry fighters need to remember what makes taekwondo unique and why it is the most popular martial art in the world. 

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