Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Taekwondo jumped the shark at the 2016 Olympics. New rules and technology were employed, but the tail wagged the dog – the well-intended changes led to a change of play that rendered the sport largely unwatchable.

The problem at its heart is that the athletes are not allowed to actually fight.

Punches are barely recognized, and kicks below the waist are forbidden. So right there you have the equivalent of a swimming race in which you aren’t allowed to use your hands, and you can only use one leg.

That would be silly.

Taekwondo rules are silly. They are based not on any object reality what so ever, but on a medieval Korean belief that hands should be reserved for higher purposes, leaving feet for mere self defense. This one misguided notion was adopted, and then millions down a weird path, that culminated in Rio 2016.

The hierarchical nature of much martial arts instruction leaves devotees unable to see how silly it is to assume kicks are better than punches. If kicks are better than punches, then why do you have to jigger the rules to ignore punches and give extra points for kicks?

A jab is the most important punch in boxing. You don’t have to make weird rules to make the jab work best, it just does. It’s not medieval theory, it’s real.

But that is only the beginning of the problem.

At the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing there were judging issues, so a concerted effort was made to bring technology to officiation.

“Taekwondo had a bad stigma after 2008,” says 2016 US Olympic Taekwondo team member Stephen Lambdin to Kyle VanHemert for Wired. “We came up for renewal in the 2020 Olympics. And basically the word on the wire was that the IOC said, ‘If you don’t do something in 2016, that’ll be your last Olympics.’”

“The IOC wants people to turn on the TV and immediately know what’s going on. … The Average Joe is looking at it going, ‘I don’t understand, this guy was beating the crap out of the other guy.’”

So Taekwondo went high tech. Chest guards and helmets feature proximity and impact sensors, with wireless transmitters. Magnet-lined footpads activate the sensors just before a kick lands, gauging the force, and awarding a point.

Thus it was that the silly rules got far, far sillier.

Now players wiggle their leg in the manner of someone trying to shake off something they stepped in. And they attempt to wipe their foot on the opponent, in the manner of no recognizable martial arts technique.

“I’ve definitely seen some weird kicks that you would never teach at any Taekwondo school,” said five time Olympian Steven Lopez to Maria Cheng for the AP. “They flick their legs up trying to do something to score, but it is not Taekwondo.”

Steven’s brother Jean is the US Olympic Taekwondo team, and he’s not impressed

“I don’t like teaching these techniques, but that’s the sport,” he said. “I think it’s compromised Taekwondo so that it’s become less about fighting — and Taekwondo is a martial art, a fighting sport.”

It used to be.

World champion Kim So-hui is resigned to the silliness, although she refuses to adopt the new “kicks.”

“Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do about it,” she said. “It’s the Taekwondo federation that decided that, not the athletes.”

The aptly acronymed WTF technical committee chairman Jung Kook-Hyun said the federation would consider possible reforms after Rio.

“Athletes are at the very heart of the World Taekwondo Federation, and so we are always ready to listen to feedback from them on how they think our sport can be improved,” he wrote. “We are committed to constantly modernizing the sport but we always want to find a balance with honoring our traditions.”

At the Rio Olympics, Korea won five medals for archery, a martial art. Korea won 5 medals for Taekwondo, a former martial art. Korea won two medals for shooting, a martial art. Korean won 2 medals for fencing, a martial art. And in the exception that proves the rule, Korea won 1 medal for golf.

Koreans are among the toughest human beings on Earth. If you want to honor Korean traditions, grow up and fight. Taekwondo does not need more rules, it needs less.

The extraordinary success of mixed martial arts, capped by the largest sale in sports history last month, shows that success does not come from standing on one leg and trying to itch each other. The success of a combat sport comes from fighting.

Keep the same rules for children. Keep the same rules for beginners. Let them donkey twist kick tickle each other until they grow up.

And when they grow up, and become experts, let them fight.

Let them kick the legs, body, and head, with full power. Then players will keep their hands up. Players have been immersed in Taekwondo for so long that they no longer realize it looks silly to keep your hands down in a fight. Every six-year-old child knows that. Ask a six year to adopt a fighting stance, and the little fists come up. But somehow grown up black belts have forgotten, and drop their hands waist high, as they bounce up and down in the manner of someone slowly skipping rope.

Instead of theoretical kicks and punches measured by wireless telemetry and other comic book devices, let them fight. Allow punches to the body, at the very least. They are already wearing gloves that look like MMA gloves, so let them wear MMA gloves.

Judges can use the criteria long established for boxing, kickboxing, and MMA. Then you will have a real sport.

This is absolutely not directed at the athletes themselves, who are world-class and extraordinarily devoted. But the Taekwondo we saw at Rio 2016 was not a real combat sport, it was a disgrace, and everyone can see it.

It’s time for Taekwondo to get Korean.