All is not yet well in the world of Korean taekwondoNow that taekwondo kingpin Kim Un-yong is gone, we can all rest easy. The fire is out, things are back to normal. Everything will be OK from now on, right?
Wrong. Kim may be gone, but the legacy that he left lingers like a wicked hangover. It will take some serious effort to wipe the slate clean and start anew.
Korea has set a goal of clinching at least three of the available four taekwondo gold medals at the upcoming Olympic Summer Games in Athens. (There are eight gold medals available, four for each gender, but each country is allowed to participate in only two weight classes per gender.)
Note the words “at least” in the preceding paragraph. It’s a pretty lofty goal. But it may not be crazy for Koreans to set such high goals; they managed three gold medals at the 2000 Sydney Games.
In the back of every Korean’s mind, winning in taekwondo is probably a gimme. Korea did invent the sport, so why should it be otherwise?
To be honest, my own thinking was once pretty close to this general view. That was until I started to talk to non-Koreans involved in the taekwondo community as part of a story I wrote earlier this year. They told me how things really worked. Not that I took everything they said at face value, but their credentials were enough to convince me that not everything is what it seems to be when it comes to taekwondo competitions. (One of the sources was a former gold medalist).
At the Olympics, for example, these sources said matches could be fixed if the main ref or two of the three side judges were under the “influence.” In taekwondo, one referee and three judges oversee the contest. Points are considered valid when two or more judges acknowledge and register them, while the referee can issue warnings that automatically cost points when accumulated.
Any competitor considered dangerous to a Korean team member’s advance could therefore be eliminated early, well before the gold medal match, to avoid attracting attention.
Had it not been for senior taekwondo official Lee Jong-woo’s remarks two years after the Sydney Games, in which he admitted exercising some influence over the judging, it would have been hard for me to believe any of what I’d been told. Lee now disavows what he said, but when I asked him about it recently, his behavior said it all. Sometimes you can just tell whether someone is telling the truth or not.
I have talked to several people inside the taekwondo community, and many of them agreed on one thing: The introduction of electronic gear is a must. Not only to quell the critics abroad, but also to bring some transparency to domestic competitions, like the national team selection process. There is a Korean company developing the electronic gear, but there is just no telling when it will be put to official use, if ever.
Officials at the World Taekwondo Headquarters say there are no concrete plans to introduce the gear. Right now, those with the power to put things in motion are dragging their feet. The gear should be introduced as soon as possible, and it should be introduced everywhere at the same time.
Otherwise, we might be left playing a sport that’s no longer in the Olympics.
by Brian Lee