Technologies adopted to upgrade taekwondo’s fairness and transparency have come at a heavy cost: the Korean-originated Olympic combat sport has lost its trademark high-flying, high-power kicks, a noted expert insists.

The controversial claim was made in a presentation to the Royal Asiatic Society’s Korea Branch in Seoul by Steven Capener, an American researcher and academic who has been based in Seoul for 30 years.

“What was at one time unique and dynamic now is pretty much a laughing stock,” said Capener of today’s taekwondo. “It is ridiculed by everyone I know.”

That there is a rift in taekwondo, between proponents of “old school” – such as Capener – and “new school” taekwondo is no news to anyone.

Still, not everyone agrees with Capener’s criticisms – particularly those affiliated with World Taekwondo, or WT, the Seoul-based international federation that oversees Olympic taekwondo worldwide. Coaches and officials who spoke to Asia Times on the sidelines of last month’s World Taekwondo Grand Prix in Chiba, Japan – an Olympic qualification event – offered contrasting views.

‘Old school’ versus ‘new school’

“Old school” taekwondo was a rough-and-tumble, full-contact sport that focused on delivering “trembling shock” and knockout blows. “New school” taekwondo appeared following the adoption of electronic sensors in athletes’ body armor from 2008.

The electronic scoring system, Capener contends, has proved doubly problematic.

Firstly, its adoption degraded the power and technical excellence of kicks: “Anything you can do to touch the body protectors can score a point,” Capener lamented. “The system is like ‘The Terminator’ when the machines control everything and become the arbiter of what is taekwondo technique.”

Match strategies shifted from KOs to point wins. This makes taekwondo perhaps “the only sport ever to actually devolve, not evolve,” Capener said.

While taekwondo enjoys tens of millions of participants globally, it has failed to ignite as a spectator sport. “The least popular sport in the last Olympics – curling – would smash taekwondo,” Capaner sniffed.

Secondly, the reason the gear was adopted, Capener asserted, was to overcome poor officiating. “The reason why [electronic scoring] came into use is the fact that the sport was so corrupt that referees could not be trusted,” Capener stated – pointing to the irony of a sport that professes a moral code suffering from dubious ethics.

Taekwondo’s American enfant terrible

Capener is no milquetoast professor sniping from an ivory tower. A former world-class taekwondo fighter, he holds a PhD in sport philosophy from Seoul National, Korea’s top university. His talk to the Royal Asiatic Society –  entitled “How Korea Created and then Destroyed the Martial Sport of Taekowondo” –  was “deliberately provocative,” he admitted.

But Capener has never feared controversy.

His 1995 Korean Journal paper, “Problems in the Identity and Philosophy of [Taekwondo] and Their Historical Causes” demolished a widespread shibboleth, established under the nationalistic and authoritarian Seoul governments of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, that taekwondo was an ancient Korean  martial art. According to Capener’s research, taekwondo was no traditional practice, but was developed as a contact sport by Korean masters who pioneered new, effective and spectacular techniques. His research was widely disseminated, republished and debated within the global martial arts community.

American Steven Capener has never shied away from controversy in his comments on taekwondo. Photo Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

From taekwondo to ‘techwondo’

Developed largely in the Seoul area in the 1940s and 1950s, taekwondo went international during the Vietnam War, then, like other Asian martial arts, boomed during the kung-fu movie era of the 1970s.

Taekwondo first appeared at the Olympics as a demonstration sport in Seoul in 1988. It joined the regular program in Sydney in 2000, making it the only Asia sport, bar judo, to gain Olympic acceptance. It will be contested in Tokyo in 2020 – where it will also make its Paralympic debut – and in Paris in 2024.

Among martial arts, taekwondo is most noted for its high, powerful kicks. But in current international competition, knockouts are rare.

In 2008, taking a leaf out of fencing’s book, taekwondo adopted a new scoring system: electronic sensors were built into the players’ protective armor; previously, corner judges scored matches manually.

According to WT, this innovation upgraded fairness – it obviates human error and/or corruption among referees and judges – and transparency – scores are wirelessly zapped to an electronic scoreboard, real-time, making matches easy for the audience to follow.

Taekwondo fighters in action: Impacts on their protective gear registers on sensors and is immediately relayed to the electronic scoreboard (top left). Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Capener, however, says that the need for electronics proved taekwondo’s failure to institute fair play.

In 2002, the then-secretary general of the global federation admitted match manipulation – leading to an investigation by the International Olympic Committee, or IOC. After judging controversies at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, taekwondo adopted the electronics.

“The implications are staggering,” Capener said. “No other sport has admitted it does not have the moral authority to officiate itself.”

While officiating controversies are now rare in the global game officiated by WT, on its home turf, taekwondo – which offers successful coaches lucrative professorships, pensions and post-retirement positions – is subject to personal and regional ties and related corruption.

Some 742 corruption complaints about taekwondo were registered with authorities between 2014 and 2017, Capener noted – higher numbers than any other sport in Korea.

From power to points

American Juan Moreno, a two-time Olympic medalist and Miami-based taekwondo coach who is also an Olympic consultant to Brazil, agreed that “old school” scoring was problematic. However, he blamed lack of professionalism rather than corruption.

“I was in a meeting with the IOC and they asked, ‘What is a point?’ but we could not clearly say what it was – we could just say ‘trembling shock,’” recalled Moreno. “The IOC said, ‘It is not being officiated correctly.’ So, the way forward was the electronic scoring.”

However, the electronics impacted technique. “New school” jabs and flicks with the front foot replaced “old school” power kicks fired from the back leg. Questionable new techniques that exist in no taekwondo textbook – such as the “monkey kick” in which the athlete lifts up the leg and taps the opponent’s body protector with the side of his/her foot – appeared.

Canadian Coach Jay Park, who has spent four decades in the sport and whose daughter/student Skylar is a top ranked Olympic hopeful, has some sympathy with Capener’s view.

“Skylar was trained to use both legs and a lot of different techniques – Spinning heel kicks! Spinning back kicks! Spinning roundhouse kicks! – and she still uses them, but it is riskier,” he admitted. “It’s now about winning the game, not about looking good.”

Even so, some accuse critics of romanticizing the past. “People are exaggerating about ‘old school’ taekwondo,” Moreno said, citing a frequent lack of action, stand-off matches, and multiple falls.

The upside of the downside

In Chiba, everyone Asia Times spoke to agreed that electronic scoring had made taekwondo fair.

“We have no big scandals as the players make the difference, not the referees, and everyone accepts that what I can do, you can do,” said Frenchman Philippe Bouedo, a WT Technical Committee member and the federation’s technical delegate for Tokyo 2020. “It is much better for the coach and the player to accept the results.”

Others suggest “old school” taekwondo was immature: Inequality enabled top teams to score easily against unprepared opposition.

“Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the Koreans were the most professional team on the planet, but many teams they came up against were amateur, so of course you could have spins and spectacular KOs,” said Gary Hall, performance director of Great Britain’s taekwondo squad. “Now they are not as dominant; people are genuinely catching up.”

Park agrees. “I don’t believe [electronics have] wrecked our sport,” he said. “The rules implemented with it allow a lot of non-traditional techniques, and this has allowed countries that were not powers in taekwondo to win using whatever is necessary.”

Currently, Team Korea remains top dog, but faces real challenges from China, GB, Iran, Russia and Turkey, among other squads. Moreover, taekwondo – an economical sport – has granted athletes from developing countries, such as Cote d’Ivoire and Jordan, historic Olympic golds.

Tweaking rules, re-injecting spectacle

WT officials are well aware of “new school” taekwondo’s issues. Over the last two Olympic cycles, the federation has been furiously tweaking rules to bring excitement back to the mats.

The square matted area has been shrunk, to bring fighters closer, and made octagonal, demanding livelier footwork. Athletes are penalized for falling; for retreating from the matted area; and for not fighting.

The most spectacular blows – such as spinning and head kicks– are rewarded with higher points than punches or body kicks.  The resultant possibility of a last-second win – seen in one match in the Rio in 2016 – means fighters have to battle it out right down to the buzzer.

Now, with Tokyo 2020 fast approaching, WT may be getting it right.

In Chiba, all finals in the eight (four men’s, four women’s) Olympic weight categories were exciting. The standout battle – for gold in the men’s-80 kg class between Russia’s Maksim “Red Machine” Khramtcov and Azerbaijan’s Milad Beigi Harchegani – was, officials at ringside told Asia Times, a superb match. Highly unusually, it won a standing ovation.

“How many football games are boring? When you have two offensive teams, it is great,” said Bouedo, in a comparison of taekwondo to the world’s most popular spectator sport. “If there is no pressure, people don’t take risks… all our rules now make the players fight!”