Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

What’s Wrong with Olympic Taekwondo?

The Rio Olympics are done and in the history books. But for martial artists, at least one question remains as a legacy of the Games: what has become of Olympic taekwondo?

Not just during the Rio Games, but even well before, I’ve heard plenty of people bemoan the new style of Olympic taekwondo. The charges are varied, but they all stem from the same root. Some people say that it’s no longer “pure” taekwondo. Ch’ang Hon practitioners (as usual) claim that ITF taekwon-do would be a better choice for the Olympics. And plenty of people feel that Olympic taekwondo has become boring, and that it used to be much more exciting back in the day.

There’s no doubt that the game has changed in recent years. The ring is now octagonal to cut down on the surface area, which should create faster-paced fights. Calls can be reviewed with video replay. And, most importantly, with the advent of the electronic scoring system, athletes and coaches have developed new strategies to take advantage of the nuances of the gear and find the best ways to score.

Gone are the days of furious chains of roundhouse kicks (that’s turning kicks for my Ch’ang Hon TKD folks), alternating legs each time. Instead, we now see most fighters relying almost exclusively on their front legs, using side kicks and odd-looking hybrid techniques, like a cross between the front kick and side kick, the “scorpion kick” to the back of the head, or a flicking roundhouse kick where the foot pivots up over top of the knee.

Considering the changes, these complaints seem strong at face value. But do they really stand up?

Olympic taekwondo is no longer pure taekwondo

Let’s get this one out of the way first of all, shall we?

I guess the first question to ask is what is “pure” taekwondo? Don’t forget that we’re practicing a martial art that’s only about 60 years old. In that time, taekwondo has changed in leaps and bounds. The taekwondo of the 1950s looked very much like rudimentary karate (because it basically was). But over time new techniques developed and taekwondo became more spectacular. As the modern sparring rules were formalized, they caused TKD to evolve with them as people developed strategies and tactics to win.

Taekwondo has always been in a state of flux. The TKD of the 1970s doesn’t look like the TKD of the ‘80s, doesn’t look like the TKD of the late ‘90s, doesn’t look like the TKD of today. It isn’t a time capsule, and we can’t force it to be.

Whether or not you like the new techniques that athletes are using to score is sort of a moot point. They score points, and they’re completely within the rules. Sure, they may look funny and they may create some dull matches, but to claim that this isn’t pure taekwondo is a bit like saying that Dick Fosbury wasn’t doing a pure high jump when he was the first person to go over the bar backwards.

You can continue to practice “pure” taekwondo if you want, but it isn’t going to win. Not without some serious rule changes.

ITF taekwon-do would do better in the Olympics

Would it though?

The big push for automatic electronic scoring in Olympic taekwondo came from judging inconsistencies and scandals. Like many other martial arts, Ch’ang Hon taekwon-do is already rife with judging issues. I’m not sure if there have been any full-blown scandals (although I wouldn’t be surprised). But if it were pushed to the big stage of the Olympics, less scrupulous officials would be even more motivated to ensure that their competitors would win.

I’m not saying that the ITF would be involved in judging scandals. I’m just saying that, given an already questionable history of judging, it wouldn’t be immune.

There’s also the little matter of the host of ITFs scattered across the planet. With no clear single governing body for Ch’ang Hon taekwon-do, there’s no way the IOC would take it seriously today as the sole authority for Olympic TKD. There was a time long ago where it looked like the ITF could have been the Olympic contender, and that would have changed things considerably, but that ship has sailed.

Finally, one of the charges levelled at Olympic taekwondo is that it’s boring. Perhaps you don’t feel that way about ITF taekwon-do, but it also receives its share of criticism from the martial arts world. Sure, we allow punches to the head, but we also (notionally) enforce semi-contact. Even though I’m a big fan of light-contact sparring, full-contact matches are just more fun to watch. There’s also been a trend among some Ch’ang Hon-style fighters in recent years to adopt a front-leg-dominant style that relies on a lot of side kicks. That’s one of the very same criticisms lodged against modern Olympic TKD.

Olympic taekwondo was more exciting in the past

A lot of taekwondo practitioners are lamenting the days when all taekwondo matches looked like this:

The thing is, nostalgia makes for a funny way of remembering things.

Yes, there were some amazing matches over the years, but not all taekwondo matches had this kind of non-stop action. In fact, it was pretty rare. Every match would have a flurry or two, and that was about it. As a friend of mine said, “We used to have three three-minute rounds, and it ended up being seven minutes of bouncing.”

It’s true. For as long as I can remember, high-level WTF-style taekwondo matches involved a lot of stalemates as the opponents bounced in place, looking for an opening. If a flurry happened, it could be pretty cool, but it was the exception, not the rule.

The person who cut the above video together had about 30 years of footage at their disposal to be able to cherry pick the best clips. The new style of TKD hasn’t been around as long, and while I don’t disagree that it can be dull to watch, we don’t have the luxury of that much footage.

On the other hand, there’s already stuff like this, just from the 2015 world championships.

Just like the older footage, the highlights are the exception, not the rule.

Ever since taekwondo made it into the Olympics, I’ve heard various complaints lodged against it (not counting the judging). It looks like martial arts ballet. It’s just foot fencing. It’s boring.

These complaints have always been there, and they’re the same ones we hear today. It’s just that the techniques, gear and rules have changed.

The general sport-watching public has always been uninterested in taekwondo. Ever since the Olympics in Athens, the taekwondo community has been worried that their sport will get dropped from the next Games. Every four years they tweak the rules, and every four years they have the same fear. We know taekwondo is now safe until at least the 2020 Games in Tokyo, but who knows after that?

Haters gonna hate

People can hate on contemporary Olympic taekwondo if they want—they have some very good reasons to do so. But the fact of the matter is that the new style is here to stay, at least for the time being. We have to either accept it or lead the charge to change the rules again.

As I said earlier, taekwondo has changed in leaps and bounds over the decades. If you don’t like it now, just wait another 10 or 20 years and we’ll see a major shift again.

Whether people like it or not, taekwondo, just like everything else, keeps changing with the times.

  • Simon Lee

    Article can be summed up as: it is what it is. And that would be a fair assessment of competitive TKD. How many times have we seen fighters who’ve scored in ITF, fail to win the bout because all four corner judges didn’t see the strike? At least in WTF TKD, the vests eliminate that issue somewhat. Also, I never understand why ITF artists brag about hitting to the head. Have they spoken to some 60yr old boxers/rugby players about this? Their views would change, faced with the trauma many go through after head injuries and brain damage.