Future of taekwondo in good hands as appointment of IOC member Aïcha Garad Ali targets gender equality
Monday, 03 December 2012
Since former World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) President Kim Un-Young, successfully placed taekwondo as an official sport into the Olympics in 2000, after being a demonstration sport for the 1998 Games in Seoul, the martial art has had its fair share of ups and downs.
A sport criticised for its Korean dominance, shouldering fears over its safety, carrying the opinion that it is a poor spectator sport and the unforgettable controversy surrounding its transparency created during the Beijing Games.
But the re-election of President Chung Won Choue in 2009, along with the growth of worldwide participating athletes, the increase in global WTF Federations, the efforts of the technical committee to introduce the Protector Scoring System (PSS) and an overview of their rules, taekwondo has worked hard at evolving as a fair, exciting and media-friendly sport – deeming it is as one of the most popular sports of this summer's Games.
So what's the next mission for taekwondo?
Since starting up the WTF Taekwondo Peace Corps in 2008, which is aimed at giving "hope and dreams to the youth of the world" as part of WTF President Choue's proposal for a joint United Nations (UN) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) Sport Peace Corps programme, the WTF have paid special attention to the African countries.
To coincide with this scheme, the WTF have an aspiration to tackle gender equality and developing the sport in less established countries, and so with the appointment of IOC member Aïcha Garad Ali of Djibouti – an inspirational woman in sport for her country - to the WTF Council during its recent meeting in Aruba the move could not be more crucial for the sport.
Coming from one of the world's poorest countries, in which literacy for women and children, improving health status, and eradicating poverty is an ongoing cause for concern, Garad Ali's career as former coach of the national handball team, then further being elected as a member of the national handball federation followed by her joining the IOC in July this year – the most powerful governing body in the Olympic Movement - is an incredible story.
"I have been interested in taekwondo for a long time and when I went to London  I liked what I saw," said the 45-year-old Garad Ali. "I like the people within the taekwondo family and have always had close relations with President Choue, who approached me with a proposal to work together which is what really appealed to me.
"I have already been working towards the set-up of the official national taekwondo association in Djibouti. Taekwondo activities have been going on for years in East Africa and I want to expand further and develop the sport in this important part of the world.
"Sport is about performance and sharing, so whatever sport is it is they all have the same components."
With taekwondo now being in the top eight most affiliated worldwide sports of the Olympics, as earlier this year the governing body approved another four members – Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Seychelles - having a Council member who is not only part of the IOC, but also a role model for women of her country, Choue described the move as instrumental.
"Aïcha's passion for youth and education was one of the fundamental reasons for her appointment – we are thrilled to have another member so enthusiastic about this area of development," he said. "It is also always important for the Council to reflect the universal nature of taekwondo – which appeals equally to men and women in all five Olympic continents."
Garad Ali, who was elected to the IOC in July this year, linked to her role as Djibouti National Olympic Committee President, told me what she hopes to contribute to the WTF and also spur the sporting movement within her country and the neighbouring countries of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
"Developing sport in East Africa is very difficult," she told me.
"The main problem holding Djibouti back is obviously financial needs, because as soon as you start developing people into world class athletes, there is a need to travel, a need to expose them to other countries to compete and this costs a lot of money which I have learnt through my journey.
"I will be building on already existing infrastructure that's in place in Africa, and in particular one way I hope to promote the sport is by hosting small events in the region. I hope that by also using my sporting career influence to reach out to athletes who already have a potential and mainly, what is really important to me is promoting women through taekwondo.
Djibouti sent five athletes to compete during London 2012, Zourah Ali and Mumin Gala, who both competed in athletics, table tennis player Yasmin Hassan Farah, swimmer Abdourahman Osman and judo player Sally Raguib who got through to the elimination round of 16.
"Djibouti is already very good in track and field and I think taekwondo is the next ideal sport for a poor country," said Garad Ali. "It is a sport which doesn't require a lot of resources and so I believe it is possible to get people to a world class level without having to invest a lot of money.
"In addition, it is a beautiful sport that is elegant to watch.
"The people in Djibouti, and the region, have the right physic that is adapted for taekwondo."
According to the World Refugee Survey 2009 statistics, the five East African Community States host a combined population of 949,000 refugees. Of this number, about 300,000 are citizens of East African States living as refugees in the territory of other community member States.
There may be questions of how East Africa, the region with one of the highest number of refugee camps in the world, will be able to fund such a sport?
"The National Olympic Committee of Djibouti and also private sponsors will be the main way of funding to begin with, to get the sport off the ground and then as soon as the Government recognise the sport's potential and that there may be world champions in Djibouti, I am sure they will invest money into it," said Garad Ali.
London 2012 witnessed 128 aspiring Olympic champions from an impressive 63 countries spar in taekwondo, one less than in Beijing 2008, but four more than Athens 2004 and more than the 51 who went to Sydney in 2000.
Ten different countries, including Gabon in central Africa, received taekwondo medals during the Games and there is a hope to include an East African country in that tally.
Martial arts are often perceived with incorrect ideals - the belief that physical strength is key. However, taekwondo is a sport where technique outweighs physical strength, and with it being a biological fact that women are more flexible than men, the facts are in women's favour.
When it comes to taekwondo sparring and self-defence, women can take advantage of their softer, female energy.
In a region under strict gender traditions, Garad Ali said her first quest is to raise awareness of the sport's fitness benefits.
"At the beginning of my time in WTF, I am not going to focus on separating men and women in East African taekwondo," said Garad Ali "It will be more on developing the benefits and resources, but with time, as my work becomes more involved in taekwondo I will focus on highly promoting women."
Djibouti is bordered by Eritrea in the north, Ethiopia in the west and south, and Somalia in the southeast. The remainder of the border is formed by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden at the east. The land was known as French Somaliland in the 19th century; in 1967, it changed its name to Afars and Issas after new treaties with France. The territory was declared an independent nation in 1977 and changed its name to the "Republic of Djibouti" with the two official languages being French and Arabic.
"For the country of Djibouti we are very close to the French community, having many French cultures within the region," explained Garad Ali. "So I will use what they do, as an inspiration and so together with France, I believe we will get the right support from them in order to develop taekwondo.
"We are very lucky to have Myriam [Myriam Baverel] as part of the Council, who was a French taekwondo player and Olympic silver medallist of the 2004 Games in Athens, and as she is a key woman in sport too, we aim to work together in promoting women in sport in my region."
What I have learnt from my recent trip to Aruba, is that taekwondo does not allow for any type of discrimination. After watching the third WTF World Para-taekwondo Championships, and speaking to the many members of the taekwondo family, in particular WTF President Choue, it is clear there is a real push for equality. Ensuring everyone has the same opportunities, regardless of gender, race or ability.
Lauren Mattera is a reporter for insidethegames