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Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Comparing the Dark Side: A Weekend at the Canadian WTF Nationals

WTF Canadian Taekwondo NationalsI spent last weekend (it’s May 2016 as I’m writing this) in Calgary, Alberta, watching the WTF Canadian National Championships.

I know: it’s like sleeping with the enemy, right? Well, it turns our WTF TKD is alright. It’s just a little different.

Anyway, most of my tournament experience has been with Ch’ang Hon (ITF)-style taekwon-do, so it was interesting to see the differences in how the tournaments are run. Actually, I could compare more than two tournament styles, as the Judo Canada Open Nationals and an international wrestling tournament were held in the venue at the same time.

So here’s what I noticed, and how it compares to the tournaments I’ve been to in the past.

The competition

This was my first experience with a WTF nationals. And first of all, I should mention that many aspects of the event were like no other tournament I’ve ever seen. For one, the thing lasted four days. It didn’t follow the standard format of patterns in the morning, sparring in the afternoon, black belt sparring last. They weren’t trying to churn through divisions as quickly as possible to try to get everything done at a reasonable hour. Every day wrapped up by 6:00 p.m. at the latest.

They didn’t even have to try to churn through colour belt divisions because the first three days were dedicated to black belts. And not just any black belts. For major tournaments like the nationals, they now divide their competitors into “elite” and “recreational” levels. Days one to three were for elite-level athletes only.

You don’t even understand how much I love this division of skill levels. I think one reason that so many people stop competing at the black belt level is because they have to keep up with the cream of the crop. Giving them recreational and elite levels lets everyone have fun.

Day four was the recreational tournament, including colour belts. Except for the full suite of electronic scoring gear (more on that later) they seemed to get all the bells and whistles of the elite black belt tournament. Except they could only compete in sparring, not patterns (or poomsae, as they call them).

On that note, one interesting thing I found was that the competitors were there to only compete in either sparring or poomsae. Not both. This avoided the whole attitude of “I’ll compete in both just because I can”. There were no terrible fighters competing in sparring and no one with terrible patterns competing in poomsae. The people in each event belonged in their event. In fact, the events were happening simultaneously, so it was impossible to compete in both.

Tournament size

As you might have guessed from the intro, a huge difference (pun fully intended) was the enormity of the event. While there was no pomp and circumstance for a large event—no grandiose opening and closing ceremonies and all that jazz—there was a lot going on. It was held in the Olympic Oval, which is a massive building. Taekwondo (note the lack of a hyphen for the WTF-style version of the sport) had six rings at one end of the oval. Judo had four rings in the middle, and wrestling had two at the other end. There was a large vendor area, with retailers from across the country, where you could buy new uniforms, sparring gear, t-shirts and more. Finally, there was a gigantic warm up area for the athletes, hidden behind a series of curtains.

The largest tournament I’ve attended in the past had maybe six or eight rings, total. There was no real warm-up area and a small, oddly-placed vendor section, selling little more than the requisite tournament t-shirts.

Organization

Another major difference was how well the tournament appeared to be organized for the athletes (although not as much for the spectators—I’ll get to that in a minute). There were PA announcements to call divisions to the warm-up area. Inside the warm-up area was a TV listing all of the brackets and upcoming matches, so the athletes knew exactly which ring they had to be in, when, and who they were fighting.

Note that this is very different from the typical tournament style of having an entire division report to a ring and sitting on the sidelines until the referee calls the competitors up one-by-one. Instead, a division could be spread over an entire day, across several rings. The athletes had lots of time to warm up and prepare for their individual matches.

I got the impression that all registrations were done in advance, so there was none of the register-at-the-door shenanigans that delay tournaments and lead to some funny ad hoc divisions.

I said the system wasn’t fantastic for the spectators. In truth, it was average. I think I was just expecting more. While the athletes had plenty of information at their fingertips, those of us in the stands didn’t. Like every other tournament I’ve been to, we had no idea who was competing or what round the division was on. We had assumed that the finals would be held at the end of the day, but later heard PA announcements for athletes to come get their medals at a podium that was hidden somewhere the spectators couldn’t even see.

That was in stark contrast to the judo tournament, which had a program listing all the matches throughout the day. When the qualifier rounds ended, there was a break and the gold-medal matches were held later in the afternoon. (Yes, afternoon, not late at night!) Only two rings were used for the final matches, and by that time the stands were packed with athletes and supporters.

Setup

That brings me to another difference: the setup. The taekwondo area was impressive compared to any other TKD tournament I’ve been to, but it paled in comparison to the setups of wrestling and especially judo. The taekwondo section had six puzzle-mat rings with clearly-labelled tables and monitors on either side of each ring for electronic scorekeeping. There were also video replay systems, in accordance with current WTF rules.

That’s not bad, but the wresting and judo organizing committees created their own mini-arenas. I want to focus on the judo setup because it was particularly impressive. They had a large head table at the front, overseeing all four rings. On the other three sides were tall bleachers, with wall-to-wall red and yellow mats and colour-matching carpeting at the edges. At the front and back of each ring was a large TV, displaying the score as well as the competitors’ names and division. The competitors would be announced for each match, and they would walk from the warm-up area to the ring, along the red carpet. The whole thing felt enclosed in a good way. It felt self-contained but big. It felt like a real event.

Floor access

One thing I really appreciated about the entire setup was the use of security and floor passes. Only athletes, coaches, officials and a few other volunteers were allowed onto certain sections of the floor. More importantly, there was strict control over who could be in the competition area and when. This was all done using security guards and floor passes.

The guards were posted at all entry/exit points to the competition and warm-up areas and checked for credentials. And only the people involved in an ongoing match could be in the ring area. When a competitor reported to a ring, they would give their pass to the head table for that ring. When the match was over, they would get it back.

Why was this so important? Well, for one, it ensured the right people were in the right places. And for two, it kept people from filling up the area around the rings.

If you’ve been to a few tournaments, you’ve probably noticed that people (athletes, spectators—anybody, really), will congregate in the areas around the rings for a better view. It makes the floor a crowded mess. There may be calls over the PA for people to go back to the bleachers or chairs if they don’t belong on the floor, but those requests get ignored.

These nationals weren’t like that. If you didn’t belong on the floor at that point in time, you weren’t on the floor. Period.

It was awesome.

Officials

Something else that was awesome—and I never thought I’d say this about a taekwon-do (or taekwondo) tournament—was the officials. The referees were all professional, thorough and in command. The corner judges seemed to be fair. Everyone seemed like they wanted to be there and wanted to do their job well.

Of course, the WTF’s electronic scoring system helps with the judging. Not only does it take much of the uncertainty out of judging, as it’s primarily automatic, but it keeps the judges accountable for the few points that have to be scored manually. The video replay system, which can be initiated by a coach or a judge, helps ensure that things don’t get missed.

There were no real “bad calls” that I noticed, and even the few that I could sort of count were really minor.

Electronic scoring

I should mention that the automatic electronic scoring was only used for the elite black belt divisions. The recreational divisions used manual electronic scoring. What’s the difference? There are body protectors and head gear that can automatically register most points. But if that system isn’t used, the judges can still electronically enter points using controller boxes.

Either way, the audience (and competitors) can see the score in real time.

I know at least one of the ITFs has implemented electronic scoring for international tournaments, but it’s still completely manual. This has its up- and downsides, as people in the WTF have learned to adapt their fighting style for the electronic equipment, and it’s not as exciting.

Wrapping up

Both Taekwondo Canada and the WTF still have their internal issues (which I’ve intentionally avoided here), but when it comes to tournaments they seem to have their stuff together more than any TKD body I’ve seen to date. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than what I’m used to. Now, if only we could all aspire to the level of those judo folks…

  • metalmonkey

    First of all Nice blog! 🙂

    I lived in South Korea for 8 years, and also being an ITF guy, I noticed how different the two styles really are. in fact there is very little in common when you get to see things in detail.

    But I think that nowadays all ITF lines are also improving on the organizational aspect of competitions (at least at an internaitonal level). not being an olympic sport makes it harder at national levels because there is no political support or sponsorship, which benefits the WTF a lot.

    • Thanks!

      I haven’t seen a lot of the really detailed differences yet, not being involved in a lot of the WTF politics and never having been to South Korea. But as much as there are differences, I keep being surprised by the similarities as well.

      Great point about the ITFs improving international tournaments, but lacking the national-level support of the WTF. I can’t help but wonder where we could have been with that level of improvement behind a united ITF, and all the countries and students that would have included. Too bad…