In Norway, finding community with taekwondo: People of all ages have gravitated to the sport for a variety of reasons

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In Norway, finding community with taekwondo: People of all ages have gravitated to the sport for a variety of reasons


Members of the Traditional Taekwondo Union in Norway attend the annual winter camp held in December 2019 in Oslo, Norway. [CHO WOON-SUP]

BERGEN, Norway - After working hours in one of the oldest cities in northern Europe, a group of Norwegians come together to practice a 2,000-year-old Korean sport nearly every day.

“Taekwondo has been part of my life for over 20 years now,” said Gunnhild V.F. Pedersen, a resident of Bergen and a member of the Centrum Taekwondo Club. “It’s where I get my break from everything else.”

Pedersen trains after work with several other colleagues from the area at a local community center. Ranging in age from 13 years old to 50-something, the students that make up the classes here each started training for different reasons and have found a community to call their own.

“I started the sport eight years ago because of my son’s interest,” said Sissel Sveen. “He went for one year and stopped, but I continued. It gives you an opportunity to train your strength and learn different techniques, and you also get good company with your friends.”

The Korea JoongAng Daily visited the community center in Bergen on Feb. 3. The center rents out its gym to groups and organizations in the area, and several taekwondo groups booked it back to back for several hours that evening.

Norwegians are known for their zeal for sports, especially winter sports, as evidenced by the number of medals the country has won at the Winter Olympics.

But lesser known is the fact that Norway is the Nordic country that has produced the most taekwondo medalists at the Olympics. Trude Gundersen won a silver medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, a phenomenal achievement given that she was the first and only Norwegian to compete in taekwondo that year. Fellow Norwegian Nina Solheim won a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Solheim drew attention in Korea at the time after her story of being adopted with her twin sister into a Norwegian family when she was seven months old was reported by local media outlets.


Left: Sissel Sveen, left, a resident of Bergen and member of Centrum Taekwondo Club, practices with a partner during a class on Feb. 3. Right: Taekwondo teachers, including Ida Braaten, third from left, and head of the Traditional Taekwondo Union, Cho Woon-sup, fourth from left, at a graduation ceremony held in December 2017. [ESTHER CHUNG, IDA BRAATEN]

In fact, the sport has linked people from Norway and Korea for years, according to one of the earliest taekwondo trainers in Norway.

“I came to teach taekwondo in Norway in 1987, after 10 years of having trained people in Denmark,” said Cho Woon-sup, who founded the Traditional Taekwondo Union (TTU), a network of some 35 clubs, including the Centrum Taekwondo Club. “At that time there was no one teaching the sport in Norway, whereas there were masters in Sweden, Germany, Spain and other European nations. So Norway’s wins at the Olympics were even more significant in that sense.”

There is a quality of character exhibited by some trainees in Norway, Cho said, that fit uncannily well with how the Korean sport was designed 2,000 years ago.

“For a Korean observer of this nation, Norwegians carry a sense of patience and tenacity perfect for the sport,” he said. “In Korea, the classes are run more like businesses and the curriculum has been adapted so that small children can earn the belts faster. In Norway, the trainees are mostly adults and they train for years before they earn their first black belt.”

Some of the athletes that the Korea JoongAng Daily met at the local community center in Bergen are aspiring taekwondo teachers themselves.

“I have been training for the past 10 years and I passed the first dan [level] last year,” said Haavard A. Forard, a resident of Bergen and member of Centrum Taekwondo Club. “The sport requires commitment. I am taking courses and hope to become a trainer myself.”

Since the sport was first exported in the 1970s, it has become one of the fastest-growing sports in some parts of the world, like Africa and Latin America, according to the International Olympics Committee.

There is an estimated 30,000 trainees of taekwondo in Norway, according to Cho. But he said it’s a bit early to celebrate.

“People talk about the globalization of taekwondo, but I don’t think that’s all a good thing,” he said. “You have to pay attention to how it’s done. Are more people learning more about Korea and its culture and language because of the globalization of the sport? Or are we merely exporting the skills needed to do well in an Olympics match?”

Cho is no longer training students, but some of his trainees’ students may be living up to his hopes.

Ida Braaten, a 31-year-old resident of Oslo who teaches at the Bjerke and Oppsal taekwondo clubs, has been training since she was 16.

“In TTU, those who wish to be sabeomnim [teachers of taekwondo] need to not only earn their fourth dan but also write a thesis on the sport,” Braaten told the Korea JoongAng Daily at a cafe in central Oslo on Feb. 6. “Some write about gyeorugi [sparring], Korean culture and its influence, or about injury prevention. I hope that we will get a database of the research done by athletes outside of Korea one day.”

Braaten visited Korea in 2012 with her team and again on her own last year.

“The more you find out about Korea, you realize [there are] more things to [learn] about the country,” she said. “We’ll probably try to return this coming summer.”

Freja S. Midttveit, a 13-year-old trainee of taekwondo in Bergen, has a similar hope.

“I started training four years ago, ever since I saw this person kick really high on TV,” she said. “Maybe when I am older I will get to go to Korea one day. In the meantime, my goal is to get my first black belt and get more self-confident.”

Midttveit may have met one of her goals that evening as she sparred with a man twice her height. She lunged at him with the sequence of a hit and a kick without a moment of hesitation.

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