Until recently, Taekwondo and Judo were the only Eastern martial arts included in the summer Olympic games. However, earlier this month, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) officially announced that, for the first time in history, Karate will also be a part of the 2020 games in Tokyo.
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The great news is that anyone can enjoy and learn from martial arts matches whether they are familiar with them or not. If you’re planning to catch a Taekwondo match or two, They will take place between August 17 and August 20. 128 athletes from 64 countries are competing, including four athletes from Olympic host country Brazil. The men’s and women’s matches include four weight divisions: flyweight (58 kg), featherweight (68 kg), welterweight (80 kg) and heavyweight (80+ kg). Changes to the rules this year include using a smaller, octagon-shaped mat and awarding more points for spinning kicks, which may encourage more aggressive tactics. This year’s Olympics will also include the use of electronic scoring equipment, which was introduced to mixed reviews in the 2012 Olympics in London.
While Taekwondo practitioners are thrilled to have representation in the most prestigious sporting competition in the world, it does not fully represent the martial art. Olympic style Taekwondo sparring differs from traditional Taekwondo in several aspects. Traditional Taekwondo includes the use of defense techniques such as joint locks, strikes to the face, and takedowns, plus defense against a variety of weapons. Practitioners of Traditional Taekwondo also spend a great deal of time honing techniques and preserving the culture of the martial art by performing forms. Many Taekwondo practitioners are anxious for the Olympics to include poomsae (forms) to demonstrate the diversity of Taekwondo.
Poomsae in practice at the World Taekwondo Poomsae Championship. Image credit: Worldtaekwondofederation.net.
Olympic style Taekwondo, on the other hand, is focused purely on fighting, and it is often seen on the tournament circuit. It relies heavily on strong kicks and agility. This style of fighting has caught some flak for the use of cut kicks, the avoidance of punches, and the tendency for many fighters to keep their hands down at their sides, the justification being that the athlete uses footwork, speed, and counter attacks to avoid being hit. Olympics style Taekwondo is not all about fancy kicking, though. Speed, strategy, and stamina are crucial to the athletes’ success. A competitor must be agile, flexible, and have incredible endurance. He or she must be able to change direction quickly and use both legs with equal skill and power. The ability to change stances from left to right, which is not always the case in other fighting sports, allows the competitor to diversify his or her arsenal. A swift, surprising axe kick to the head can come from the front leg as easily as it can from the back leg.
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Whether your chosen martial art is Taekwondo, Karate, Muay Thai, or another striking art, watching Olympic sparring is a chance to learn and improve your own fighting skills. Observing fights, whether they’re Taekwondo sparring matches, UFC or boxing is always a great way to play “what if.” Each sport can teach you about defense, offense, timing, and strategy. As you watch the matches, ask yourself these questions: What if my opponent goes for a head shot? What do I do if my opponent constantly goes on the offense? How do I pick up on clues and cues from my opponent? What kind of kicking combinations are the Olympic athletes using—can I try that in my next sparring match?
If Olympic style sparring is not your cup of tea, think about what you would do differently in your next match. We do not practice Olympic style sparring at my dojang, but I will definitely be watching the Olympic matches and try to pick up some pointers.
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Now, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: electronic scoring equipment. Equipment with electronic sensors, also known as Protector Scoring Systems (PSS), was introduced in the 2012 Olympics after the controversy surrounding scoring issues at the 2008 games in Beijing. The intent of the equipment was to register blows that were delivered with enough force. The World Taekwondo Federation, coaches, judges, and athletes had high hopes for this technological advance, but it has not gone without criticism.
There have been fierce debates over whether the PSS has diminished the level of technique and power required to strike and at times knock out an opponent. Once a full-contact sport, some fear Taekwondo has merely become a game of tag. At worst Olympic Taekwondo sparring has been called boring, unrealistic, and a game of “chicken fight,” with the opponents merely tapping each other instead of striking hard enough for a knockout.
It may be too early to tell whether electronic scoring equipment helps or hinders Olympic Taekwondo sparring. Technological advances have been happening to Olympic sports for decades, leading to new records being set (and broken). In 1964 at the Tokyo games, fiberglass replaced aluminum vaulting poles, and more recently, Speedo, in collaboration with NASA, developed the LZR, a streamlined, polyurethane-based swimsuit that debuted at the 2008 games in Beijing. While electronic chest and foot protectors will unlikely be labeled as “technological doping” (and subsequently banned) as the LZR swimsuits were, it remains to be seen whether the style of fighting as we know it will become unrecognizable. One hopes that the individual skill of the world’s top athletes will not be upstaged by technology.
Karateka around the globe can now dream to be Olympians! Image credit:dailynews.gov.bw
It will surely be interesting to see whether Karate follows suit with similar practices in the 2020 games and what lessons Karate athletes and coaches have learned from Taekwondo’s experience in the Olympics. In the meantime, enjoy the games, cheer on your country’s athletes, and contribute to the discussion of the inclusion and governance of martial arts in the Olympics!