London 2012 was "best taekwondo competition ever"
Sunday, 26 August 2012
Going into the London 2012 Olympics few people predicted that taekwondo would be one of the hits of the Games. But to anyone who witnessed the competition at ExCeL it was a stunning triumph where competitors from 21 countries shared the 32 medals on offer to finally end doubts that this was a sport whose roots had spread beyond its birthplace in Korea.
Of course, to the partisan home fans, the best moment came when British teenager Jade Jones claimed a stunning victory in the lightweight -57kg category over China's Hou Yuzhuo, the world champion. But there were so many other memorable moments that will long live in the memory.
Perhaps my personal favourite was the bronze medal won by Afghanistan's Rohullah Nikpai in the -68kg category. It wasn't a gold medal – but somehow it felt like it.
Along with his family, Nikpai had left the Afghan capital during the bloody conflict that has enveloped his city and settled in one of Iran's many Afghan refugee camps. He soon became a member of the Afghan refugee taekwondo team after watching martial arts movies before returning to Kabul in 2004 and continuing his training at the Government-provided Olympic training facility.
His peformance in London matched the bronze medal he had won in Beijing four years ago in the -68kg category. His feats also inspired another Afghan taekwondo competitor, Nesar Ahmad Bahawi, who carried the country's flag during the Opening Ceremony of London 2012, proving once again that taekwondo is a sport for the people.
The reception he received from the crowd – well aware of what this troubled country of 30 million had gone through during its turbulent history – at the medal ceremony was emotional and overwhelming. It was a wonderful snapshot of the whole atmosphere of the tournament, an event where the crowd seemed to appreciate that here was something more at play than just a simple sporting contest. This was a sport that the whole world could play. It was arguably the most universal sport of the Olympics.
"So many countries made history here by getting their first medals in the sport of taekwondo, and some even their first or only medals of their Games," said Dr Chungwon Choue, the President of the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF).
After a difficult Olympics in Beijing in 2008 there was no doubt that taekwondo needed to enjoy a near flawless competition at London 2012 to repair its fractured reputation. But the WTF intelligently went back to the drawing board following the issues at Beijing, and aware it could ill afford any more problems at London 2012 came up with a solution that would completely revolutionise the sport: the Protector Scoring System (PSS).
The PSS body armour features electronic body protector sensors that register kicks and punches if applied with sufficient force, ensuring that there is no doubt as to who has landed a scoring shot. Television screens are also in place to highlight anything that may have been missed.
Under the instruction of Choue, its forward-looking President, the PSS made its debut at this summer's Olympic competition held at ExCeL and proved a resounding success. Not only did the new scoring system work perfectly but the venue was full to the brim with enthusiastic spectators on a daily basis, the action now completely devoid of any controversy. And, crucially for any sport at the Olympics, there was home success as 19-year-old Jones claimed victory in the women's -57 kg weight category to claim Britain's first Olympic gold medal in the sport in front of a delighted crowd.
"I think it is fair to say that the London 2012 competition has been the best Olympic taekwondo competition yet, just as we said it would be," said Jean-Marie Ayer, the secretary general of the WTF. "Anyone who has been here, heard the noise and seen the flags will tell you the same thing – the atmosphere has been very, very special. We have had nearly six thousand people in the arena three times a day for three days, and they have been treated to some spectacular bouts."
With proceedings over Choue also hailed the "best Olympic taekwondo competition yet" some 12 years after the sport first appeared on the official Games programme at Sydney 2000. "We had some problems in Beijing, that is for sure," he told me in the bowels of ExCeL, the loud noise of the crowd echoing above us, forcing him to lean forward to whisper in my ear to make his point.
"But London 2012 has been absolutely fantastic with no controversial issues due to the new PSS. The referees and judges are only human and they can make mistakes but the PSS system has made sure there is no controversy and it has shown we are fully transparent."
It is no wonder that Choue grew more animated as he stretched to make his point, pulling me closer to him. "It has been a great advertisement for taekwondo because it has made it easier for the crowd to understand and I have been delighted with the support they have given throughout the tournament," he shouted into my ear, the roars of the crowd growing louder. "They have supported every athlete and all the seats have been full each day. This has been a competition that will really help taekwondo grow in the country and this region – so there will be a great legacy that London 2012 has given taekwondo and a great legacy that taekwondo has given to London."
Choue's words were echoed by Servat Tazegul, who won Turkey's first gold medal of the Games in the -68kg final. "Competing in London has been such an amazing experience for me," he said. "The facilities and the organisation have been top class. But the best thing has been the crowds. The stadium was full for every round, and the noise was incredible."
But taekwondo has also left a mark on Britain. There is no getting away from the fact, however, that Jones' victory established her as the new pin-up girl, not only of taekwondo but also perhaps British sport. Since London she has been given a Jaguar car, asked to drape herself over a cooker for Hello magazine and had rapper Dizzee Rascal ask her for a photograph. It was particularly important for the host nation that they had a gold medallist to celebrate after the controversy surrounding the omission from the British team of Aaron Cook in the build-up to London 2012.
"I have to admit it is still sinking in I am the Olympic champion and it is just mad," she said. "To be the youngest one [in British history] and make history as the first-ever [British] taekwondo gold was amazing. You think 'where do I go from here?' But I want to do the same again in Rio and win another gold. I think people seem to peak in taekwondo in their early 20s and I still have a lot to achieve."
Those words will be magic to the ears of Choue, who was particularly pleased that the sport showed itself to be a truly global discipline with some nations, such as Britain, winning a gold medal for the first time. "There is no dominant force in the sport anymore and we can see that with so many different countries winning medals at these Olympics," he said.
But at London 2012 taekwondo was more than just four days in ExCeL. The sport made a real effort to enusre that it reached as wide an audience as possible. This included holding a special demonstration day at the iconic Tower of London, where young British and Korean athletes performed on the grass around the famous moat built by Henry III. Throughout the day, a diverse crowd of over 1,000 gathered to watch the young athletes' performances.
"It is fantastic because taekwondo is a sport that possesses the values of the Olympic Movement and is an excellent way for young people to keep fit," said Choue. "I know there were many young people who watched taekwondo for the first time [at London 2012] and I hope many take up the sport because it promotes friendship, respect and self-defence which are all very important."
The many International Olympic Committee (IOC) members that attended the taekwondo competition during London 2012 cannot have failed to be impressed. "The new scoring system is transparent and that is obviously very important to the IOC and its values," said Choue. "We are a popular global sport participated in by young people around the world so I am confident we will remain part of the Olympics and use our sport to keep spreading the Olympic values.
"The taekwondo family is already looking ahead to prepare for the 2016 Olympic Games. In just a short time we will be forming a special task force to begin the preparations. Our experience in London will certainly guide taekwondo to another successful Olympics in Rio and hopefully many more beyond. So we feel we are in a very good place."
Tom Degun is a reporter for insidethegames. To follow him on Twitter click here.