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Martial Arts in the Olympics: Has Inclusion in the Games Helped or Hurt Taekwondo?

Martial Arts in the Olympics: Has Inclusion in the Games Helped or Hurt Taekwondo?

Whenever art becomes sport in an artificially short amount of time, some people are pleased while others cry foul. That’s exactly what happened when some practitioners of the martial art of taekwondo embarked on a mission to gain entry into the Olympics: It left some taekwondo stylists with a new raison d’etre, while plenty would argue that the Korean system of self-defense lost much of its real-world effectiveness.

In Part 2 of this series on the Olympic Games, we focus on taekwondo. Our featured experts are luminaries in the field: Hee-Il Cho, G.K. Lee and Herb Perez.

— Editors

Hee-Il Cho (Photo by Robert Reiff)

ART: TAEKWONDO
ADDED TO THE OLYMPICS: 1988
EXPERT: Hee-Il Cho, ninth dan, Black Belt’s 1989 Co-Instructor of the Year and 2012 Man of the Year

QUESTION: Have the Olympics altered the way taekwondo is taught?

HEE-IL CHO: Many schools have changed because taekwondo is in the Olympics. However, many schools have stayed on the traditional teaching path. It often depends on the instructor’s age and point of view. Younger instructors may have had exposure only to the World Taekwondo Federation, which means there’s a new generation of WTF instructors and students who are more geared to the Olympic-sport style of taekwondo.

At my school, we prefer to teach a combination of both styles. We do not gear our program specifically to the Olympics. Instead, we use a teaching style designed to give maximum benefit to the students.

QUESTION: Has taekwondo changed from a martial art to a martial sport since 1988?

HEE-IL CHO: In many ways, taekwondo has changed into an Olympic competition. Many technical advantages have evolved because of the competitive nature of practitioners around the world. Every country wishes to win a gold medal, and therefore many techniques have come about which are specifically geared to Olympic rules. These techniques, however, may not be the most effective for self-defense. For instance, because of Olympic rules, hand techniques in taekwondo have diminished while high kicks have flourished.

QUESTION: Have the Olympics helped or hurt taekwondo overall?

HEE-IL CHO: The sport of taekwondo has grown immensely in popularity since Olympic recognition. Countries that were never exposed to it now are aware of it. Taekwondo is recognized throughout the world.

There have been many positive effects, but there are also some traditional aspects and values that have changed. For many people, the goal of training is different now. In the traditional martial arts, the aim is to perfect one’s character. In sport, the aim is to become a champion. The method and the path are not necessarily emphasized because the primary focus is on the quest for victory, which sometimes is sought at any cost. This is where drugs and cheating can come into play. In sport, the goal of winning can overwhelm any moral values that are part of traditional taekwondo such as those reflected in the five tenets.

QUESTION: Does the possibility of winning an Olympic medal in taekwondo result in more children enrolling?

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HEE-IL CHO: It might help generate interest among children because they’re able to watch talented participants in the Olympics. In the USA, however, there’s not much fame or recognition because of minimal coverage of taekwondo competition by the media. One Hollywood movie like The Karate Kid generates far more interest in taekwondo than sport competitions do.

QUESTION: For children, is it better to learn traditional taekwondo or sport taekwondo?

HEE-IL CHO: Traditional taekwondo instills character-building traits like discipline, respect and focus. The child respects the master. In sport taekwondo, often the title of “master” is replaced with “coach.” This can reflect the absence of respect and discipline.

Sport taekwondo is highly competitive, and there’s only one fist-place winner, one gold medalist. Second place is barely even recognized. Because of that, the sport aspect of taekwondo appeals to children with exceptional natural talents. In contrast, traditional taekwondo offers success and accomplishments for all levels of skill and natural talent.

***

G.K. Lee (Photo by Peter Lueders)

EXPERT: G.K. Lee, chief master of the American Taekwondo Association, Black Belt’s 2014 Instructor of the Year

QUESTION: Does the ATA teach primarily taekwondo for aspiring Olympians or for people who want to become proficient at self-defense?

G.K. LEE: Our main focus is traditional taekwondo — mental and physical self-defense. The ATA does not currently train members specifically for the Olympics, but we do not prohibit it.

The ATA could easily adopt an Olympic-coaching system in the future. Since 1996, we have integrated Olympic-style training into our curriculum. We have employed Olympic coaches and provided Olympic-style seminars and Olympic training camps for our instructors and students.

QUESTION: Has taekwondo changed since it was added to the Olympic Games in Seoul? Has it become a sport rather than a martial art?

G.K. LEE: For some, maybe. But the majority of classes are still being taught by first-generation martial artists who want to keep it traditional. At the ATA, we make certain that taekwondo is a traditional martial art that people can enjoy and practice through old age.

Taekwondo hasn’t really become more popular here as a result of the Olympics. Maybe it has in small countries, where they have government support, but not in the United States. Traditional martial arts are not generally supported by governments.

QUESTION: Does taekwondo’s inclusion in the Olympics make the art appeal more to the next generation of students?

G.K. LEE: Of course. And the ATA would like to develop a world champion or an Olympic medalist. However, we prefer to teach our young competitors that while taekwondo is a set of martial arts skills and life skills that can take them to the Olympics, it’s an art that they can practice long after their competition years are over.

***

Herb Perez (Photo by Doug Churchill)

EXPERT: Herb Perez, 1992 Olympic gold medalist, Black Belt’s 1992 Male Co-Competitor of the Year

QUESTION: What’s your stance on the pre-1988 vs. post-1988 question?

HERB PEREZ: Taekwondo has been bifurcated into disparate arts with differing expectations, goals and outcomes. The height of taekwondo as a sport was 1988, maybe with a second crest in 1992. The greatest increases in the skill sets were seen during the years leading up to Seoul and Barcelona — the best players our sport has seen were developed under the rules and objectives used in those Olympic Games.

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They were creative players known for their power, speed and ability to transcend the technical parameters of the game. Techniques were rewarded based on power. They were not rewarded if they were not executed properly and with trembling shock. As a result, athletes had to commit in order to score, and they did so knowing they might be knocked out.

However, the referees were unable to keep up with the athletes, and there was a fundamental disconnect between the game underway and the results shown on the scoreboard. Spectators and the Olympic hierarchy became disenchanted with the sport and the ability of its referees to conduct fair matches. As a result, electronic scoring was implemented — prematurely.

The early versions of the electronic-scoring system were worse than the referees they replaced. The situation was exacerbated by rules that disallowed the correction of false positives. I was chairman of the Education Committee and vice chairman of the Technical Committee, which wrestled with these issues. Dr. Steven Capener and I created a multitier point system that rewarded different techniques with different points. However, it was based on well-executed techniques and power.

The intent was to create a merit-based scoring system that depended on technical and power superiority. This has been bastardized, resulting in basically a watered-down version of a bad point-karate event. In fact, I believe that a decent point-karate open-circuit fighter with a little training could win an Olympic medal in one year.

QUESTION: Technically, what effect have the Olympics had on taekwondo?

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HERB PEREZ: There are three versions of taekwondo these days. One is traditional taekwondo, which focuses on fighting and training as they were done before 1992. Another is “traditional taekwondo as a martial art,” which is taught by most instructors who are not in the Olympic pipeline. The third is the “electronic-scoring taekwondo.”

The shame for the art is that kicking is a superior method for achieving one’s objectives in a fight. The shame for the sport is that kicking is a great base on which to build a competition format. Because of “electronic-scoring taekwondo,” however, fewer people are focusing on developing power and properly executing techniques.

QUESTION: With taekwondo going in three directions, how should instructors lead their students?

HERB PEREZ: I own and operate four dojang with more than 1,800 members. We teach life-skills development through taekwondo. We believe this is the most important benefit of training. Last year, one of my students was accepted to Stanford University — that is my measure of success.

In Part 3, Black Belt will examine how the Olympics have affected wrestling.

Read Part 1, which addresses judo and the Olympics, here.

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