Sharing in the taekwondo bountyIf you are on Korea’s national taekwondo team there are only two ways to get recognition:
1. You win with a round-house kick, knocking out your opponent in two seconds (It hasn’t happened yet.)
2. You lose (It does not really matter to whom as long as you lose.)
Koreans, including myself, try as they might, cannot hide this inexplicable aura of invincibility when it comes to taekwondo. It’s never a question of winning because that’s a given.
Mark Twain once said, “Give a man a reputation as an early riser and that man can sleep until noon.” Korea’s dominance in taekwondo basically mirrors Mark Twain’s wisdom. Let me explain why.
The majority of Korean males have at some point in their lives had some exposure to this martial art. It’s almost automatic for parents to send little boys (and girls) to taekwondo gyms. When young men head off to the army, they also must get their first dan in this martial art. I still remember the times I had to practice spreading my legs 180 degrees, being pushed against the wall like a ballerina. Trust me, it’s no fun.
Now, with this much exposure one might imagine Korea as a country where martial arts scenes resembling those in movies like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” unfold daily on the streets. Well, not exactly. Korean men in their 30s are, like everyone else, subject to the universal law of gravity. Many struggle to lift their leg above their waist.
Since taekwondo hit the international stage as an exhibition sport at the 1988 Olympics, Koreans have merely had to show up to rake in their medals. I can’t think of any other sport dominated by one nation for so long. This has occurred despite taekwondo’s popularity worldwide.
For the first 10 years Korea has definitely had the edge. Its athletes simply had better technique and besides, its players had been kicking around since they were tots. The next five years were interesting: techniques became more widely known as Koreans started coaching abroad. By now, more foreign athletes who had been exposed to the sport since their childhood ― just like their Korean counterparts ― came onstage. Nowadays, even Koreans admit the competition from the likes of Iran, Turkey and Spain is getting tougher.
What’s also growing incredibly common are complaints from non-Koreans that something fishy is going on among the referees in this sport. The recent examples have been at the Daegu Universiade. Koreans write off these claims as little more than jealousy, but if you hear these accusations repeatedly it indicates a problem.
What good is it if our world dominance in taekwondo comes at a price of rousing other countries’ distrust? One solution may be the introduction of electronic gear. Strangely enough it is available, but after talking to an official at the Korea Taekwondo Association I found out that there are no immediate plans to introduce it at international events. The gear is slated to be used for the first time, officially, at a domestic competition this October. There should be little problem using this gizmo right away as it is already in its fifth version and has been approved by other countries. If Korea wants to keep its chin up instead of dragging its feet, swift measures are needed. Its reputation indeed is at stake ― one that is more important than winning medals.