Fall From Grace Taekwondo takes a bad tumbleSeventy-seven-year-old Lee Jong-woo ― perhaps the most significant figure in modern taekwondo who hasn’t been incarcerated ― remembers how his discipline became Korea’s national sport.
“It was 1971, and Kim (Un-yong) came to me one day and told me President Park Chung Hee was going to award an official slogan to the sport,” the elderly taekwondo master recalled.
“We came up with about ten,” Mr. Lee said. “President Park picked the one that said, ‘Taekwondo, the National Sport.’ That was it.”
Today, the national sport is at a crossroads.
In January, its longtime de facto kingpin, Kim Un-yong ― president of both the Kukkiwon (World Taekwondo Headquarters) and the World Taekwondo Federation, and a vice president of the International Olympic Committee ― was jailed on charges that he’d accepted bribes and embezzled billions of won from the taekwondo organizations. He has resigned from both, and has been suspended from the Olympic committee.
In December, Koo Cheon-seo, president of the sport’s third major organization, the Korea Taekwondo Association, was imprisoned for bribing association officials to make him president two years ago. Mr. Koo received a two-year suspended sentence and resigned in January.
Also in January, Lee Sang, president of the United States Taekwondo Union and one of the World Taekwondo Federation’s six vice presidents, resigned from his post at the union amid charges of alleged financial mismanagement. The United States Olympic Committee had threatened to decertify the union unless Mr. Lee and other officers resigned.
These scandals have not only struck the three organizational pillars of taekwondo in Korea, but have punctured the reputation of the country’s most prominent figure on the international sports scene, Kim Un-yong ― the man whose personal ascent is closely tied to taekwondo’s rise from a domestic martial art to one practiced by an estimated 50 million people around the world.
Within the taekwondo community, while Kim Un-Yong is regarded as the driving force behind the rise of the modern sport, Lee Jong-woo is considered its architect. Mr. Lee, a giant by old-time standards at 179 centimeters (five feet, 10 inches), gazed into the distance before talking about Mr. Kim, who Mr. Lee himself brought into the taekwondo world more than 30 years ago.
“At the time, what we needed was a well-connected person who could help us in terms of finances and raising taekwondo’s status,” said Mr. Lee, a former Kukkiwon vice president. “He fit that bill perfectly.”
In 1971, Mr. Lee was a leading figure in Korean martial arts, the owner of Jidogwan, a major taekwondo school. Mr. Kim was indeed well-connected; he was an aide to Park Jong-gyu, then head of the powerful Presidential Security Service under President Park. They were introduced by a military police officer who was a student of Mr. Lee’s, and who had met Mr. Kim in the army. Mr. Kim became the seventh president of the KTA.
Taekwondo emerged as a discipline in the 1950s. Forty years under Japanese rule had destroyed much of the practice of traditional Korean martial arts, such as taekkyon. In 1955, Choi Hong-hui, a general and martial arts master, proposed streamlining the existing martial arts under the name taekwondo. The name stuck.
The fact that many of the original taekwondo masters such as Choi Hong-hui had studied Japanese karate ― called dangsudo or gongsudo in Korea ― has prompted some to question whether taekwondo isn’t really karate under a different name. Yang Jin-bang, an official at the KTA and professor at Yong-In University, a center of college taekwondo in Korea, admits karate had its influence, but says taekwondo as a sport is purely Korean.
“We created a totally new system and competition system that is unique,” Mr. Yang said. “You can’t find it anywhere else.”
Such was the state of taekwondo when Kim Un-yong stepped on the stage. To build a framework that could catapult it beyond Korea’s borders, he built the Kukkiwon building, in southern Seoul, in 1972. He proved his value to the sport by obtaining all the building materials and funds through donations from contractors and his connections; the land itself was donated by the city of Seoul.
“To tell you the truth, without him, it would have been impossible,” Lee Jong-woo said. “His background certainly helped.”
Soon, Mr. Kim began the process of making taekwondo a nationally acclaimed sport. Seeing the existence of nine different schools in the country as an obstacle, he took away the schools’ right to issue dans ― certificates of proficiency ― and gave it to the KTA.
Today, Mr. Lee regrets that decision because it took power away from the old schools, which went into decline. Remnants of their lineages still exist, but according to Mr. Lee, they wield little influence. Had their power remained, the old master believes, Mr. Kim’s rule might not have gone unchallenged.
“Kim was so passionate, and had a vision for taekwondo that nobody else had,” Mr. Lee said, drawing on a cigarette. “I give him that, and I am not afraid to tell people that. But there was nobody to check his power. And he thought he was the only guy who could do the job.”
As taekwondo rose in prestige, Mr. Kim cemented his position within the sport at home and abroad. Taekwondo was gaining international recognition, thanks in part to government support that came in various forms. Besides direct funding, taekwondo instructors were sent abroad through the Korea International Cooperation Agency, a government organization that promotes socioeconomic relations.
Taekwondo became a member of the General Association of International Sports Federation in 1975, and was officially recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Commitee in 1980. Both moves boosted Mr. Kim’s fortunes, too. On the recommendation of the Korean government, in 1986 he became the sixth Korean elected to the IOC; his immediate predecessor was Park Jong-gyu, his former boss at the Presidential Security Service.
At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, taekwondo was introduced as an exhibition sport. In 1992, Mr. Kim became a vice president of the IOC. Two years later, in September 1994, the committee voted to make taekwondo a full-fledged Olympic sport for the 2000 summer games in Sydney.
But even as taekwondo’s and Kim Un-yong’s stars were peaking, decades’ worth of discontent and controversy were boiling up.
Cynicism about the sport’s official leadership has become common in the lower ranks. “If you ask me, up there everyone is corrupt. It does not matter who is in charge,” snorts Choi Hong-ki, who operates a taekwondo gym in Mapo.
The embezzlement charges have raised questions about auditing at the major Korean taekwondo organizations. The World Taekwondo Federation does not undergo independent audits; its last internal audit, in September, was conducted by two board members, neither of whom is a certified accountant. The Kukkiwon is supposed to have an outside audit every two years, but the last one was in October 2001. Lee Jong-ho, one of the accountants who worked on it, said he found no discrepancies, but added, “If the material itself that was provided to us was tampered with in any way, we would not be able to detect it.” The KTA received its last independent audit in 1999, from the Korea Sports Council.
In 2001, students and professors from Korea’s college taekwondo programs demonstrated at the Kukkiwon, demanding reforms including the resignations of Mr. Kim and others. Respected taekwondo masters abroad supported the demands with open letters.
The uprising was prompted by scandals surrounding the selection process for the national team. High-ranking Kukkiwon officials were accused of taking bribes to select specific players, by placing corrupt judges in certain matches. Mr. Kim resigned briefly as president of the Kukkiwon, but was brought back in 2003.
Internationally, taekwondo has been dogged by accusations that referees have swung decisions to benefit Koreans. Competitors from other countries have claimed that Korea is too dominant in the sport, pointing at the fact that the WTF, where Koreans hold most of the high-ranking positions, certifies all referees and judges.
Korea won nine gold medals out of a possible 16 in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, where taekwondo was an exhibition sport, and five out of 16 in Barcelona in 1992. In 2000 in Sydney, where there were new restrictions on the number of competitors each country could field, all four of Korea’s taekwondo athletes won medals (three golds and a bronze).
Herbert Perez of the United States, a gold medalist at Barcelona, is blunt in his accusations. “I have witnessed what happened at matches at virtually every level of competition,” he said. “World Championships, World Cup and the Olympics. And I have talked to referees that told me that they were told to judge in a certain way.”
According to Stephen D. Capener, an instructor at Ewha Womans University who worked for the WTF and is still involved with Korean taekwondo, a match can be fixed if the referee or two of the three side judges are on the take. The judges decide how many points to award, while the referee, besides officiating, can hand out warnings, which automatically cost points if they accumulate.
“It usually happens when nobody is paying attention,” Mr. Capener said. “At the very early preliminary rounds.”
Electronic gear worn by competitors, which indicates when contact is made, has been proposed for taekwondo to make the system more objective. Lee In-chae of the KTA says no schedule has been determined for when the gear will be used within Korea, let alone internationally.
In 2002, Lee Jong-woo was quoted by a Korean magazine, Shindonga, as saying he had exercised some indirect influence in the Sydney Olympics. “You can’t ask the refs directly to favor Korean athletes,” he was quoted as saying. “But if you keep telling them in a certain tone to judge ‘fairly,’ or when the game isn’t going well for our players you yell at them, those who have quick wits understand what I mean by that.” He later disavowed the contents of the interview, saying his quotes were taken out of context.
At any rate, Mr. Lee now says that fair refereeing is crucial to taekwondo’s reputation. “This is a global sport now,” he said. “It’s not only Korea’s sport. If we are the only ones getting all the gold medals, why would anyone bother to do it? We have to change our thinking now. That is the only way we can make it a truly integrated global sport.”
by Brian Lee