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It has been 15 years since taekwondo debuted at the Olympics as an exhibition event. At those Seoul Games, South Korea dominated the sport. To some observers, it seemed that all Korean athletes had to do was show up on the taekwondo mat and they would win a gold medal. The intimidation factor was high, and rightly so, as Korean men took seven out of the eight gold medals awarded, and gained 13 medals overall.

Surely South Korea should have done well in taekwondo. A martial art that resembles karate, taekwondo is this country's national sport, as well-ingrained in people's minds as baseball is to Americans.

A dynasty of medals seemed to be in the making back in 1988. But things have not turned out that way. In fact, South Korea's taekwondo medal haul has become a medal meltdown. Three years ago, at the Sydney Olympics, Korean men walked away with only four medals. Still a force to be reckoned with, Korea no longer dominated.


An easy part of the answer is that in 1988 there were eight weight classes in taekwondo. Two years ago, there were four. There's also been advances made in coaching by countries such as Spain, Turkey and Iran to close the gap between Korea and the rest of the world.

But there are more complicated reasons to explain Korea's slippage.

To people like Choi Sung-gi, who runs a taekwondo gym in Mapo, Korea's chief problem has to do with how the sport is organized, or disorganized, here.

"I teach high school kids who should be able to spread their legs like a pair of scissors but they just can't," says the black belt master, his voice filled with dismay.

At age 51, Mr. Choi belongs to the old school of taekwondo masters. A graduate of Yong-In University, a mecca for taekwondo education in Korea, Mr. Choi opened his own hall 25 years ago. He belongs to a part of the taekwondo community in Korea that thinks change needs to take place at the top.

"Some of the kids who come to my place have been taught by others. Sometimes I have to start from scratch with them. It's not their fault. It's the fault of those who taught them."

In order to become a taekwondo master you need to obtain at least a third-degree black belt and then be approved by the Kukkiwon near Gangnam Station. The Kukkiwon serves as the world headquarters for taekwondo as well and being responsible for teaching and developing new techniques.

Mr. Choi blames a lack of qualified instructors at the headquarters who are responsible for training young masters to become teachers. "When you are a member of the Kukkiwon, and responsible for teaching others, you should be able to do a roundhouse 580-degree jump kick. I don't think you'll find too many people who can do that over there [at the Kukkiwon]," says Mr. Choi.

Mr. Choi complains that only those well connected have a place at the sport's headquarters, and those who manage to find a place there often has nothing to do with how well they can kick.

Early last year, Kim Un-young the president of the Kukkiwon, the Korea Taekwondo Association and the World Federation of Taekwondo, the sport's chief organizations,a nd all located in Seoul, had to step down as presidents of the Kukkiwon and the Korea Association because of scandals involving his son, who worked for the association, and other taekwondo officials close to the senior Kim. At the time, issues that surfaced ranged from bribery in the national team selection process to the picking of referees. Now, a year later, Mr. Kim has been voted back to head the Kukkiwon by his supporters who still hold powerful positions throughout the taekwondo community in Korea. Mr. Kim never lost his position as president of the World Taekwondo Federation, despite last year's unsavory events.

"I know people who have bought their dans [black belts] at the Kukkiwon," Mr. Choi says with a snort. "You see it in the way they kick. Word gets around."

Mr. Choi argues that the upper echelon of Korean taekwondo culture has to be removed in order to bring about necessary changes in the sport. But he says that it won't be easy to accomplish such a task with a current system in place that ensures that the old, easy-to-influence guard of the Korea Taekwondo Association remains in power.

Any taekwondo master who wants to open his own gym has to register with the association and pay a fee of 3.5 million won ($2,916) while paying a monthly fee as well. Although under the law you need only to register with the district office to open a gym, few dare to not register with the association. "You send your students to the Kukkiwon to take a test to advance to another level," says Mr. Choi. "They will know there whether or not your gym is registered. The referee will make sure that students from unregistered gyms don't pass the test. It's that simple."

As a long-time member of Korea's taekwondo community, Mr. Choi says he is lucky. No one forces him to register him or ask him to pay monthly membership fees.

As internal disputes embroil Korea's taekwondo community, the competition abroad only gets stronger. Experts here say that Korea now has to work extra hard to keep its taekwondo status as the jongjuguk, or mother nation.

"Techniques are no longer secrets. Our training methods have been made public. Now it's a matter of physical fitness and mental prepartion," says Yoon Jong-hwan, a professor of sport sociology at Sangmyung University.

Mr. Yoon says that since taekwondo has become a global sport, foreign competitors can now match the technical prowess of Koreans.

Signs of the diminishing dominance of Korean taekwondo are not only visible at the Olympic Games but at other international events such as the World Championships. In 2001, Korean men came away with two gold medals and two bronze to capture the competition, just beating out Turkey, which won a gold and two bronze medals.

"We need to develop new techniques and put more emphasis on weight training as well," says Mr. Yoon.

Mr. Choi says improved techniques are indeed important for Korea to once again dominate, but so is money. Not the lack of money, but the ways money is gained.

"It's not like the old days anymore," says Mr. Choi. "Today, there are many gyms where kids don't even wear their uniforms. The only thing some of these gym masters care about is how many kids they can enroll and thus charge. The stuff they teach is 'kitchen' stuff because the teachers don't know any better."

It is easy to understand how money has become such an influential factor in the sport. Each year, the World Taekwondo Federation, the Kukkiwon and the Korea Taekwondo Association and its chapters across the country charge foreign taekwondo athletes test fees that range from 82,530 won to 530,550 won, depending on the test level. For Koreans, the fees range from 32,200 won to 64,000 won, although costs may vary depending on the area of Korea.

According to an association official, last year the organization had a 2 billion won budget while roughly 1.1 billion won came from testing fees. Currently, the Korea Taekwondo Association controls 18 chapters and about 7,000 gyms.

The association has its own internal auditing but objective mechanisms to check on the money flow are irregular. Although outside auditing by the Korea Sports Council exists, that auditing does not take place annually. In fact, it happens only when the council randomly selects a sports organization. An official with the council confirms that the last time an outside audit of the Korea Taekwondo Association occurred was 1999. A scheduled audit set for last year did not take place.

This March, as an experiment, the association plans to introduce electronically connected gear that athletes will wear when competiing. When a competitor is struck by a blow, as in fencing, a scoring light will go on and a computer will immediately tally points scored. The move is aimed at calming critics inside and outside Korea who have at times questioned the objectivity of referees. Last year, Lee Chong-woo, former World Taekwondo Federation vice president, made headlines when he told a reporter that he had manipulated the 2000 Sydney Games by influencing the referees. He later denied the contents of that interview although many now don't rule out that the influence occurred. "It is possible," says Mr. Choi. "After all, there is tremendous pressure not to lose face as the jongjuguk."

Koo Cheon-su, the current president of the Korea Taekwondo Association, has been in office for almost a year and realizes that changes need to take place.

"We know we have problems and we are working to fix them. That's why we are introducing an electronic scoring system. I am trying to unite our community and move it forward."

The sport of taekwondo in Korea faces numerous tasks ahead if it hopes to keep its honorable position. Still, there are some bright spots out there. Young kids like Jin Myong-soo, 7, a blue belt, flock to gyms scattered around the country, unconcerned about receiving a medal.

"The Olympics? Hmm... What's that?" says Myong-soo, who is practicing kicks this day at Choi Sung-gi's Hwarang Taekwondo in Mapo. "I just love taekwondo. Kicking is fun. You know?"

Listening to the boy's comments causes Mr. Choi to laugh loudly and say, "I just wish everyone in Korea had his mindset. Then we wouldn't be in this whole mess."

Bad movies, great promotional tools

If you go to the homepage of the Korea Taekwondo Association, you'll find on a menu a site that says "Best of the Best." It reveals, among other things, the history of the sport.

Not coincidentally, "Best of the Best" also is the name of the first taekwondo movie. The film debuted in 1989 and stars the American actor Eric Roberts as a member of a U.S. taekwondo team that travels to Seoul to do battle with a vicious Korean squad. The distinquished James Earl Jones plays the U.S. coach, an actor who seems quite confused much of the time on screen. The movie's most famous line (at least for Koreans who have seen it) is likely: Jojyeobeoryeo! (Pulverize him!)

Not surprisingly, "Best of the Best" was ignored at Oscar time. And yet the movie helped to give rise worldwide to the sport of taekwondo. The move also gave birth to three sequels, all progressively worse than the original. "Best of the Best II" (1993) moved away from Korea to a colosseum and depicted fights to the death. Eric Roberts once again got top billing, but by now James Earl Jones surely had fled for his dramatic life. "Best of the Best 3: No Turning Back" (1995) stars the Korean-American actor Tommy Lee, who actually has roles in all four of the series. The cast of "Best of the Best: Without Warning" (1998) showcases Russian mobsters and counterfeiters. There is plenty of punching, but not much real taekwondo.

At this point, there are no plans for another "Best of the Best" sequel, but fight fans should not despair. Preparations for "Rocky VI" reportedly are being discussed.

by Brian Lee
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