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Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Why a Divided ITF Is Good for Taekwon-Do (and Why It’s Not)

Can a Divided ITF be a good thing?

Once upon a time, the ITF was a single organization. The second-biggest Taekwon-Do organization in the world, in fact. It contained nearly every Ch’ang Hon Taekwon-Do practitioner across the globe. But, like something from a Haim song, those days are gone. Today, we have a divided ITF.

Since General Choi’s passing in 2002, the world of Ch’ang Hon TKD has changed dramatically. Now there are four ITFs (that I know of), as well as several politically-distinct smaller organizations that all teach General Choi’s style of Taekwon-Do. And it seems like another organization pops up every few years.

It’s no secret that General Choi was holding the ITF together. Infighting and factions abounded before he died; everyone was following him but, in some cases, had little regard for one another. If he had been smart, he would have ensured proper succession planning and stepped down as leader long before he got sick. Instead, Gen. Choi—ever the megalomaniac—overruled the 2001 ITF Congress’ vote to have his son, Choi Jung Hwa, serve the last two years of the six-year leadership term (which was already too late in the game).

In hanging onto his own power, General Choi let that divided ITF happen.

I understand the splintering. Martial arts politics can be a nasty business (no, this isn’t just limited to Taekwon-Do). People bicker; at meetings they cluck at each other like a coop of angry chickens; they stab one another in the back. It’s easier to form a smaller organization with like-minded people than it is to deal with the politics of those you actively disagree with. So the ITF split. People left.

Now, people don’t have to follow General Choi to follow his style of Taekwon-Do.

This splintering isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it does have its downsides.

A divided ITF: the good

One of the issues that led to the division of Ch’ang Hon Taekwon-Do was that member schools served the ITF, not the other way around. In seeking to avoid the political shenanigans of the ITFs and gain members, many of the independent federations have set up structures and made promises to better listen to and serve those members. So far, they’ve been pretty good at keeping their word.

With multiple federations to choose from, school owners now have something they’ve never truly had in the past: choice. They can now choose the organization that best serves their needs. The members now hold much of the power. Since every organization wants to gain as many members as possible, this will hopefully usher sustain era of competition. To try to attract more schools, hopefully each of the organizations will try to do as much as it can to make members feel heard and valued.

If the federations don’t offer enough to their members, the school owners can simply leave and find a new organization.

The name of a federation is no longer important for the legitimacy of the art the instructor teaches. These organizations exist for things like providing technical guidance, sanctioning tournaments and overseeing rank certification. A single, monolithic ITF isn’t necessary for that anymore. So each TKD organization had better do what it can to attract and maintain members or face the consequences. As an example, in Canada, to the best of my knowledge, there are now more students under two independent organizations than under any of the ITFs. Those organizations are working hard to attract school owners, who have been unhappy with the old regimes.

A divided ITF: the bad

There’s one giant, obvious flaw that’s been plaguing all of the divorces that have been flying around the Taekwon-Do world. The name of the game here is also “competition”. In this case, I don’t mean the competition between organizations for members. I mean tournaments for students.

In splitting into smaller and smaller organizations, those students who want to compete (especially at the highest levels) are doing so within smaller and smaller pools. It’s fine to be able to say that you’re the world champion of whatever federation you’re in, but if that entire federation only has 2,000 students, that doesn’t prove you’re world-class.

Even among the ITFs, the top-tier competitors can no longer compete with one another. This might mean more world champions, but it doesn’t mean better world champions.

This is the only reason I’d like to see a return to a single ITF. But I’d happily settle for a compromise. And keep in mind that the lofty goal of reunification would have to occur in baby steps.

Some organizations are already opening up some of their tournaments to practitioners from any federation. That’s a good first step. The next step could perhaps be to not just open the tournaments to others, but to actively try to get schools from other federations to attend (important: without trying to recruit them to join a different organization). Maybe one of these days we could even see the road to each federation’s world championships open to students from the other organizations.

If these sorts of things could ever happen, then one way to take it to the next level could be to form an inter-federation governing body that’s only responsible for tournaments. Each federation could still run its daily business however it sees fit, issue its own dan certificates and so on, but they would come together for the sake of sport. In a way, almost like how the World Karate Federation came together, with its multiple styles of Karate.

And maybe, just maybe, one day the ITF could be whole again.

Of course, all of this depends on the cooperation of people who disagreed so much that they split into god-knows-how-many different groups. So I don’t expect to see any of it happen in my lifetime. But I can still hope.