Taekwondo Is Path to Medals for Countries That Rarely Get Them
TOKYO – In the sand-swept alleys of Niamey, the capital of one of the poorest countries in the world, Niger, they are racing. In the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, crowded with Syrians who fled the civil war, they are cutting scissors. And in the slums of Thailand, where martial arts offer a tantalizing way out of poverty, they chop the ax that helps make taekwondo the most explosive of combat sports.
Of all the Olympic events, taekwondo is perhaps the most generous to the wealth of the nations that exist on the fringes of international sport. Since Korean martial art became an Olympic medal-winning sport in 2000, it has managed to award more than a dozen medals to countries that have relatively few athletes at the Olympics and, until recently, even fewer. hopes of triumphing in anything.
Ivory Coast and Jordan won their first-ever Olympic gold medal in taekwondo, as did Taiwan. Niger, Vietnam and Gabon won their first silver medals. Afghanistan’s only Olympic medals, a pair of bronzes, also came.
In Tokyo, athletes from 61 nations, plus three members of the Refugee Olympic team, compete in taekwondo, remarkable diversity for a sport that had only been contested in five Games. More than a dozen flag bearers of the Olympic teams in Tokyo are taekwondo fighters, which underlines the importance of the sport for small sporting nations.
Taekwondo may not take advantage of the high visibility or mass audience of sports such as gymnastics or boxing. But the discipline of self-defense is practiced by tens of millions of people, especially in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Its popularity is based, in part, on the fact that it does not require expensive equipment or extensive fields.
“For a poor country like Niger, this sport is the best,” said Issaka Ide, president of the Niger Olympic Committee, who has also been the head of the national taekwondo federation. “Although the sport originated in Korea, we made it our own because it is very easy to play without a lot of equipment.”
Taekwondo was South Korea’s first successful cultural export, before K-pop, before Korean TV dramas, and before kimchi fried rice. The sport did not become a cohesive discipline until the 1950s, when Koreans merged elements of various martial arts to create “the path of the foot and hand,” as taekwondo means in Korean.
During the Vietnam War, South Korean soldiers taught taekwondo to their Western counterparts. American action star Chuck Norris, stationed at an Air Force base in South Korea, has also taken up the sport.
When Korean coaches began to sow the sport overseas, they resorted to the appeal of “Korean karate,” referring to the most famous Japanese sport. But taekwondo quickly established itself and the main governing federation, World Taekwondo, now has 210 member countries, plus a refugee representative.
For generations raised on the cinematic exploits of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, taekwondo has become the Olympic sport closest to having the electric power of kung fu movies. Taekwondo made its debut as an Olympic demonstration sport at the Seoul Games in 1988 and became an official medal-winning sport 12 years later, although its obscure scoring system has left plenty of room for rumors of match-fixing and corruption in the lower ranks. (The sport’s reputation has also been tarnished in the United States by a sexual abuse scandal.)
On Saturday in Tokyo, Panipak Wongpattanakit, a fighter in the women’s 49 kilogram category, won Thailand’s first taekwondo gold medal, after winning a bronze medal in Rio in 2016. Her father, Sirichai Wongpattanakit, a swimming coach, said he goes to all his fights normally but the coronavirus pandemic has kept him from making it to Tokyo.
Panipak – who goes by the nickname “Tennis”, while his brother is known as “Baseball” and his sister as “Bowling” – excelled in many sports, but taekwondo, with its alloy of strokes of quick foot and steel self-discipline, was the one who stuck.
“I am delighted that she made her country proud,” Sirichai said.
For its gold, Panipak will earn about $ 365,000 from the Thai government, a transformative sum of money in a country where debt is skyrocketing and revenues are dwindling.
For every medal won in taekwondo, the multiplier effect is greatest in countries where Olympic glory is scarce. Within three months of Ahmad Abughaush, a men’s 68-kilogram fighter, won Jordan’s first-ever Olympic medal – a gold medal – in Rio, 50,000 taekwondo suits were sold in the country, said Nasser Majali, secretary general of Jordan. Olympic Committee.
“It was a taekwondo blast,” said Majali. “A wonderful explosion.”
On Sunday in Tokyo, Ulugbek Rashitov of Uzbekistan, 19, won the gold medal in the men’s 68 kilogram division. Three years earlier, a university in Tashkent, the capital, had developed an entire academic department dedicated to taekwondo.
“Uzbekistan has never had an Olympic champion in this sport,” said Rashitov, a university student. “It’s like a dream.”
Sunday’s competition also presented a bronze medal in the women’s 57kg category to Taiwan, which competes as Chinese Taipei due to objections from China. The island won its very first gold medal in Athens in 2004, when a man and woman took top honors in taekwondo.
“We have made inroads in the past few years, but other countries as well,” said Chang Shao-hsi, Taiwan’s sports chief.
International taekwondo goalkeepers, still dominated by a Korean clique, have also tried to catalyze interest in the sport beyond national borders. In 2015, World Taekwondo introduced taekwondo to refugee camps, where any dusty area between the tents can be converted into a taekwondo space. Today, taekwondo fighters are trained in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, Rwanda and Djibouti.
“Taekwondo is a combat sport, but we wanted to bring a sense of peaceful contribution to the Olympic movement,” said Choue Chungwon, Korean President of World Taekwondo.
In Tokyo, three taekwondo fighters are part of the Refugee Olympic Team, a team that debuted in 2016 to provide a people beset by war and political strife a safe space for competition.
Over the weekend, three people officially came out of nowhere strapped on their taekwondo helmets and put on their mouth guards. One was Kimia Alizadeh, an Iranian-born fighter who was the first woman to win a medal for her native country in 2016. She was looking for another medal in the 57 kilogram division. But this time around, Alizadeh was competing as a refugee.
She fled Iran last year, criticizing the country for its treatment of women. In his first fight on Sunday, in competition without a headscarf, Alizadeh defeated an Iranian supervised by his former coach. She then sent a double Olympic gold medalist from Great Britain and a Chinese fighter who was a favorite for gold.
Probably waiting for Alizadeh to win perhaps the International Refugee Team’s first-ever medal, Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, traveled to the remote site where the taekwondo matches were being played. Sitting at a Choue of World Taekwondo seat – for social distancing – Bach brought unexpected lights from Klieg to a sport that is typically sheltered in the shadow of the Olympics.
Then Alizadeh lost against a Turkish fighter. Bach has quietly disappeared from the arena. Taekwondo has returned to its place of relative obscurity. A Chinese fighter won a medal, then an American took a gold, followed by Rashitov from Uzbekistan.
“Every day new countries are winning medals,” Choue said. “There are so many countries.
Muktita Suhartono has contributed reporting from Bangkok and Amy Chang Chien from Taipei, Taiwan.
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