Stars of Tomorrow: Thailand’s Napaporn Charanawat
Napaporn “Mint” Charanawat started taekwondo at the age of eight because she was weak and sickly. Now, aged 17, the girl from Bangkok is world junior champion.
The path to gold in the female -46kg category was not easy. Her final fight against Rim Bayaa of Sweden was one of the most exhausting taekwondo battles this correspondent has witnessed – proof positive that the formerly sickly child has achieved an awesome level of athleticism and stamina.
Both girls erupted straight into action from the opening bell, with the Thai dominating center court and the Swede attempting to score from the perimeter. Both were firing a wide range of techniques – ax kicks, crescent kicks, rear-leg round kicks – but it was the Thai who drew first blood with a razor-sharp chopping kick to the head that pole-axed the Swede to her knees for a 3-0 lead. Charanawat’s coach requested a video replay for a round kick to the head; it was denied. After an exchange of ax kicks in the clinch, the round ended 3-1 to Charanawat.
As round two got underway, Charanawat landed another head kick, going up 7-1. Action continued with the Thai trying to drop the ax and the Swede responding with spinning back kicks. Charanawat extended her lead to 10-1. More action followed with an exchange of punches, then the Swede landed to Charanawat’s head, bringing the board to 4-10. In the third, Bayaa went onto the attack, fighting forward strongly. The Thai’s flexibility was impressive to behold as she raised her ax kick toward the ceiling again, again and again; the board when to 5-11. As the round counted down, Charanawat – finally – seemed to be tiring, relying more on counter punches more than head kicks.
With 30 seconds left and the Swede 5-11 down, Bayaa had her work cut out and launched into all-out attack. But rather than retreating tactically and waiting for the clock to deliver her medal, Charanawat gamely fought back. In the dying seconds, both fighters tumbled to the floor. After a marathon of a match, Charanwat took gold 7-11, leaving Bayaa with a well-deserved silver.
In person, Mint – her nickname is a word-play from her sister’s name – is upbeat and bubbly, sporting a boyish bob and flashing an ever-present grin.
Going back to her start in combat sports she decided not to pursue Thailand’s native martial art – the fearsome Muay Thai kickboxing – instead choosing taekwondo to upgrade her health: “Muay Thai is too rough,” she said. “Some girls do it, but not many.”
Taekwondo led her to well-being, and she discovered a natural talent. As an athlete, she considers herself “very technical and very flexible.” Her favorite technique will surprise nobody who watched her match against Bayaa: “The ax kick off both legs,” she said. “And I try to make points with the punch.” But the key to her victory was staying focused in the moment. “I really wanted to be champ, I was very excited, but I had to calm down.”
She is not happy with the current state of the game. “I don’t like this side kick, push kick, side kick,” she said, “I can’t do it, I am too small.” Her fighting inspiration is Jordan’s jump-kicking Olympic gold medalist Ahmad Abughaush. “He moves fast and has good strategy,” she said.
In the future, she plans to transition to the adult division – and to study. “I want to go to the seniors, and I want to go to Tamarsard University to study advertising,” she said. Her ambitions are to be world champion in the seniors, then go on to the Olympics. After that, she would like to run a gym.
In conclusion, she thanked the Thai association who gave her the chance to attend Burnaby, the friends that she trains with, and her family. Speaking of which: How did Mint’s parents react to her world championship win? “I don’t know.” she laughed. “I called them, but because of the time difference between Canada and Thailand, they did not pick up."
Raheleh Asemani: Impossible is possible
Every Olympic athlete's road is long and hard - but Raheleh Asemani's was longer and harder than most. In fact, for a time, it looked as if her Rio dreams would be shattered on the rocks of nationality.
The Iranian-born Asemani fled her native land for Belgium in 2012. The refugee arrived in Belgium on Christmas Day, 2012. It did not take long for the former Iranian international - Asemani had won a silver medal at the Asian Games in 2010, but did not make it to the London Olympics in 2012 – to find her way to the Belgium national taekwondo team, under coach Karim Dighou and performance director Laurence Rase, on December 28, 2012. With financial help from local federations, the refugee was able to re-start competing around Europe.
But like every athlete, her highest dream was the Olympics and Asemani, an asylum seeker, was stateless. A ray of hope shone when International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach announced the formation of a refugee team for Rio. That gave Asemani - then working as a postwoman in Belgium, while training part time - a last-chance opportunity to fight in Rio. "I was really happy as taekwondo is my life, and this was the one chance," she said. "After 17 years in taekwondo, it had been really difficult."
On April 13, she was granted Belgian citizenship - but it was not clear if she would be able to represent Belgium in Rio. At the European Qualification Tournament, Asemani - still fighting under the WTF flag - found herself facing off against Belgian athlete, de facto teammate and close friend Indra Craen. "It was a really emotional game," Asemani said. She emerged victorious in that match, and ended the European Qualification Tournament with a first place win in her weight class after defeating Finland's Suvi Mikkonen. The question now was whether she would fight for Belgium, or for the IOC's Refugee Team.
Her paperwork passed muster, and she was cleared to fight in Rio under the Belgian flag. "I got big help from the IOC and the WTF," she said. Asemani was ecstatic. "What can be more beautiful than to have a country at the Olympic Games?" she told AFP in an interview.
Her new passport meant an additional level of emotional support from her new nation. "I had lived four years in Belgium and been training with the Belgian team," she said. "The people of the country supported me and did everything for me and I got support from Karim and everyone. It was really good."
She fully bonded with the team. "It was really good, I had really good friends, we have grown together," she said. "It is not only sport, it is friendship and everything." Her special training partner in the lead up to the Olympics was none other than Craen.
There were significant differences in the training she went through in Iran and in Belgium. "In Iran, in the national team, we trained with girls," she said. "So, when I started in Belgium, it was really difficult to train with Karim and the boys." The famously tough training for Iran made her "strong", Asemani said, but in Belgium she found more leg control and more science in the programme.
Rio would prove to be a trial by fire. Asemani won her first two matches, then found herself facing 2012 London champion and eventual 2016 Rio gold medalist, Jade Jones of Team GB. The fiery Jones won the match, 7-2. Still, Asemani was through to repechage, where she narrowly missed out on a bronze medal against Egypt’s elastic-legged Hedaya Wahba, in golden point.
Asemani has mixed feelings about her Olympic result. "First, I had hoped to be in Rio; second, I wanted to do my best, and I think I did it," she said. But she admits that when she came home "it was too difficult for me, mentally". For four months, she stopped taekwondo.
"After Rio I could not accept that I had lost in golden point," she said. "Then I started my job in the post office - and I have really good friends in the post office - and they supported me and they said 'you must go one more time; you can do it; you are the best!' and that was really positive energy for me."
She returned to training and is now back on Team Belgium - this time, as a full-time athlete, training both mornings and afternoons. Currently, her sights are set on the World Championships in Muju, in June. "I want to be in the Worlds and I want to win and do my best as I did not fight in 2013 or 2015," she said. "It will be my first time on the Belgian Team."
How about Tokyo 2020? "I cannot speak about Tokyo, I think I will be too old, I want to see how my body is," said the 27-year-old. "I want to do taekwondo in my best condition and get the best result."
As for the future, post-Muju, she is mulling a return to study and a possible career in the Belgian police force.
As for the past, she has a lot of gratitude. "I want to say 'thank you' to everyone who helped me, I am really happy that I have met so many good people, and have good people around me," she said. "Especially Karim and Laurence and my boss at work - they were all really good for me."
How about a message for those refugees, displaced persons and asylum seekers worldwide who may consider following in her footsteps? "There are many people with hard life stories, but I think anybody can make their dreams," she said. "I want to say: 'try, always! Impossible is possible."
Jade Jones: The chosen one?
It was the evening of day two of the taekwondo competition of the 2016 Olympic Games, and in Rio's Carioca Arena 3, the fight that the crowd wanted to see was about to get underway.
In the women under-57 kilograms category, the number-one seed and London 2012 gold medalist Jade "The Headhunter" Jones of Team GB faced off against number-two seed and arch rival Eva Calvo Gomez of Spain. Since London, the two have been engaged in a seesaw, back-and-forth rivalry. Now, Briton faced Spaniard under the Olympic spotlight for gold. Game on.
Combat commenced with the two battling for the centre of the mat, Jones looking more aggressive and stabbing at the taller Spaniard with her side kick. Then Jones' radar-guided front foot flashed up. The Headhunter drew first blood with a high kick. Seconds later, she did it again, doubling her lead. Disaster loomed for Calvo Gomez. The Spanish coach demanded a video replay but Jones' points stood, 6-0.
In the second, Calvo Gomez charged out, fighting at a furious pace and grabbing two points with body kicks. The British girl returned fire, taking her lead to 7-2, but the Spaniard rocked Jones with her own head kick. The board was now 7-6, with Jones - just - ahead. Given the one point differential, there was everything to play for in the third.
Both athletes came out fighting, but Jones' head kick was doing its wicked work, extending the Briton’s lead to 15-7. Despite a moment of drama- Jones' coach, Paul Green, appealed a head kick; it was denied - Jones kept her cool and extended her lead.
It ended 16-7 - a convincing win, a brilliant performance and a second Olympic gold for the "Welsh Wonder".
Jones - beyond exultant - ran off the mats and dragged Green up onto the field of play. She then ran a lap of honour around the Arena, streaming the British and Welsh flags, to the delight of the roaring crowd - which included 10 of her family members who had flown in from Flint, Wales.
"I know I am the best, but in taekwondo, anything can happen," Jones said, post-match, referring to the upsets in the previous day’s competition, when stars had fallen left, right and centre. Looking back on Rio, she is understandably proud.
"After London, I did not want to be a one-hit wonder," she said, referring to 2012, when, as an unheralded 19-year-old, she had come from nowhere.
"The run up to Rio was a different ball game, I had been undefeated all year, so there was so much pressure, so much expectation." Victory, she mused, had been almost a relief. "It was still joy," she said. "But more like, 'thank God'. Anything else would have been a fail."
Great Britain - the originator of football, rugby, cricket and boxing - has a powerful sporting tradition. Jones' latest gold - together with the silver won by teammate Lutalo Muhammad and the bronze won by teammate (and roommate) Bianca Walken - has planted taekwondo firmly on the British sporting map. "It is going from strength to strength, the team is getting stronger and stronger, we are becoming a force," she said. "Taekwondo is one of the main sports we are excelling in; I am proud to come from taekwondo in Britain."
With the country having won hosting rights for the 2019 World Championships, two Grand Prix events and the next Para Taekwondo Championships, Jones will be fighting in front of her home crowd once more.
"I will try to be an ambassador and for me it is an amazing opportunity for friends and family to come and watch as usually, taekwondo is in faraway countries, so my family does not have the chance to come," she said. "Also, when it is in the UK, people say it is the best atmosphere."
However, 2017 marks a new ruleset coming into taekwondo - and one of those rules is that coaches will no longer be able to appeal head kicks, something Jones and Green have been tremendously successful at. She is unfazed. "I reckon a true champion can change and adapt," she said. "I still have back kicks and body shots and the rules will not stop me from going to the head."
As for inspiration, she cites Green and her grandfather. "My granddad took me to taekwondo at age eight, and he literally travelled the world and used his savings to get to the competitions," she said. "I still ask his advice."
She describes herself as "family oriented" and says she likes to "laugh, joke and be a bit silly".
But that is not her taekwondo personality. On the field of play, Jones is aggressive, dangerous, venomous. "I am a bit rough-and-tumble the way I have been brought up, I am not scared to go toe-to-toe," she said. "A lot of girls shy away from that; it is not natural to fight."
And she is a hard-core trainer. An acquaintance noted - with awe - that Jones and Green sometimes finish grueling all-day national team training sessions, then head out to private dojangs in Manchester for extra evening training. "I have quite an obsessive personality," Jones confessed, admitting to being "a bit bonkers". "Anything I do, I don’t do half-heartedly."
This explains her ambition. "The goal is to get three Olympic golds," she said. "The biggest legends, - Team China’s Jingyu Wu and Team USA’s Steve Lopez - have not been able to do it, so that shows how much of an ask it is".
She claims to fear nobody on the circuit, but knows that up-and-coming fighters will be gunning for her over the next four years. Still, her age is to her advantage. "Being only 23, I don’t think, 'what else can I do?,'" she said. "I feel like I can get better."
So, London and Rio - and a historic third gold in Tokyo? "Could I be the chosen one?" she wondered aloud. Then her self-belief kicked in. "I believe I can do it," she finished.
Sajjad Mardani: Handsome victory in Baku
It was the biggest shock of the 2016 Olympic taekwondo competition: the wipeout of the much-fancied Iranian men’s team. But just four months later, at the first Premier League taekwondo event to be held since Rio, one of that team’s top guns proved that the Iranians are back in business.
On day two of the World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final in Baku, Iran’s Sajjad Mardani took out Rio silver medalist Abdoul Issoufou of Niger in a fiercely fought semi-final battle, 7-6. That victory thrust him into the final against Russia’s Vladislav Larin.
Game on. Mardani, looking stylish and catlike from the outset, scored with a punch almost immediately. Next, he unleashed a flurry of ax kicks which Larin covered well as both lads fought to control the centre of the ring. Larin raised an ax; Mardani stuffed it by moving in and body checking. The feeling-out round ended 1-0 to the Iranian.
In round two, Larin looked more aggressive, seizing a point with a check kick to the body that shook Mardani. Mardani shot back with a punch and crescent kick to the head, then a powerful round kick to the head and a serial attack that drove Larin backward. The Iranian fans started cheering, as Mardani grabbed another point to the body.
However, the point difference was minimal. In round three, the fight could still go either way. This tense dynamic was sensed by the audience: for the first time in the evening, the crowd started roaring.
Action resumed. Mardani tried punch-round kick combinations. Larin shot back. Mardani nodded in what looked like acknowledgment of his opponent’s attacks. In fact, he had worked out his opponent’s tempo and technique. "I knew than what I needed to do," he recalled. With one minute left on the clock, Mardani was 3-1 up. The Russian looked set to go into an all-out attack, but Mardani, unfazed, checked his offensive and picked up another point after Larin fell, raising his score to 4-1. Fifteen seconds remained as Mardani moved in close, leaving Larin no space to kick.
But there was still drama to be played out.
In the last three seconds Larin attacked, Mardani backpedaled out of the area and the Russian picked up a point to take the board up to 4-2. Just two seconds remained on the clock. An appeal by the Russian coach provided a break from the action. The Russian and Iranian supporters in the crowd roared. The appeal was rejected. The fighters replaced their mouth guards, buckled on their head protectors and stepped up to the mark. The last two seconds were in play.
Larin surged forward. Mardani counter-kicked and retreated. And that was that. The battle ended 4-3, with a gold medal for the man from Tehran.
After the Olympics, the Grand Prix Final medal earned by Mardani was not just a return to victorious form, but a potent injection of new confidence. "This proved that I could do my best and that my hard work had paid off," he said. "Now, I can hold my head high."
So what happened in Rio? The much-feared Iranian trio of Mardani and teammates Farzan Ashourzadeh Fallah and Mahdi Khodabakhshi had been taekwondo’s strongest, medal favorites. When the smoke cleared, all three were empty-handed.
Asked about the drubbing Iran’s men’s squad suffered - taekwondo pundits have been discussing ever since - Mardani went quiet. "It’s a tough one," he mused. "Let me think about it." After a while he composed himself. "For sure - 100 per cent. The athletes you expect to perform the best are the ones you study more and analyse," he said. "We were the favorites, so I believe people studied us."
The stress was particularly colossal for heavyweight Mardani who fought on the last day of the competition. "I was under a ton of pressure heading into my day as the two favourites [his two team mates] had been unsuccessful," he said. "That fact that I was unable to win as well was so painful. We were in disbelief."
Since then Mardani has been on an obsessive self-improvement drive. "You have to adjust and change and adapt - the person who remains the same is not successful in any sport," he said. "I have tried to focus on changing my game."
The Grand Prix Final gold suggests his efforts have borne fruit. "I have never seen Mardani look as good as he did in Baku," said an impressed Mike McKenzie, the WTF’s TV commentator.
Now 28, Mardani started taekwondo after seeing his mother and sister practice. "As soon as I saw taekwondo, I fell in love with it," he said. As a fighter, he reckons his strengths are his non-specialised approach to the game. "I believe I am well-rounded," he said. His favorite technique is the head attack, but he does not name any specific kick. "The leg goes from here to there," he said, gesturing from earth to sky.
Asked to name his favorite fighter, his response is telling. "I like Jade Jones," he said. "She believes in herself."
Unlike some of the Iranian athletes who live, eat and breathe taekwondo, taekwondo and only taekwondo, Mardani has a side job: fashion modeling.
That should surprise absolutely nobody. As well as boasting the height of the heavyweights and the toned physique of the pro athlete, Mardani is far and away the most wickedly handsome devil in the game. "I like modeling, I like being on billboards," he said. "I love it. One day I want to go out and be a full time model."
He thought for a second, then added: "And if I get the chance to be a model, it would be a great opportunity for taekwondo, too."
For now, his own goals focus on 2020 - though he is keeping his eyes on the near term. "Obviously, the goal is Tokyo, but I am focusing on day-by-day and only looking to the next competition," he said.
Mardani’s focus on constant improvement suggests that he might be better advised to ditch modeling and become a motivational speaker.
"My goal is to show anyone around me that hard work pays off," he said. "I want to influence the people who surround me to always believe in themselves: it does not matter how difficult life becomes, you always want to achieve more - day by day you get smarter and stronger."
Despite his relative youth, Mardani is already thinking about his heritage. "Sajjad Mardani is a human like everybody else, but I have been blessed by God with so many things," he said. "The main thing is to make an impression, and to inspire others."
Armed with this attitude, Team Iran’s Rio experience may even prove to be a long-term positive. "In sport, one person wins, one person loses. We did not perform as well as we wanted, but that’s life," Mardani said.
"We look forward to tomorrow."
Charlie Maddock: Team GB’s 'Pocket Rocket' strikes gold in Baku
When the smoke cleared at the 2016 World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final in Baku, Azerbaijan, the national team standing at the top of the medal rankings was Great Britain.
That result was thanks to the efforts of three woman warriors: gold medal winners Jade "The Headhunter" Jones, Bianca "Queen Bee" Walkden and Charlie Maddock.
Charlie Maddock? Yes, Charlie Maddock. Her name is not as well-known as double Olympic gold medalist Jones or world champion and Olympic bronze medalist Walkden, but her lack of recognition and experience did not stop the up-and-comer from beating the 2016 Rio Olympic champion in the female under-49 kilogram category, Korea’s So-hui Kim.
The Kim-Maddock battle on day one of the Grand Prix proved to be a clash not just of fighters, but also of fighting styles. Kim is a master counter-kicker, with a wily tactical game and excellent footwork. Maddock, on the other hand, is an aggressive fighter, with a never-step-back, take-no-prisoners style.
As the buzzer sounded for the first round, Maddock - totally unintimidated by Kim’s pedigree - surged out, fighting strongly and immediately pressuring her opponent. The Korean fought back gamely; she appeared to have decided that she would not let Maddock play her customary steamroller game. It was a lively round - but ended without a score. The second round kicked off with Maddock continuing to apply forward pressure. Kim reverted to her normal, evasive style, leaving Maddock to expend energy firing multiple kicks. But it was Kim, fighting more economically, who looked the more dangerous player: she failed to score by a whisker with two head shots. Round two ended scoreless.
Round three continued in the same vein with plenty of kicking, but no contact and no points. Surely, at this stage, Kim’s superior experience and ring craft would pay off?
Not necessarily. With just 12 seconds on the clock and the board empty, Maddock riposted a Kim attack with a reverse spinning turning kick to the head - then-swung her leg back into a round kick to the head, without putting her foot down. It was an extraordinary display of leg control, brilliant timing and spectacular technique. The scoreboard lit up, and the British girl was ahead 4-0.
In the final seconds Kim, a cagey, tactical fighter, was powerless to respond: her arsenal did not include the high-scoring techniques necessary to turn things round. The match ended with a well-deserved 4-0 win for the British girl who is clearly charmed in Azerbaijan - her previous big win had been a gold medal at the European Games in Baku in 2015.
Speaking the day after her win at the Grand Prix Final, the 21-year-old from the English town of Stoke-on-Trent proved pretty and petite, but fizzing with life. Her nickname is "pocket rocket" - a reference to small size and high energy.
Combative energy is in Maddock’s DNA. She got her start in combat sports at the tender age of five at home. Her parents had met through martial arts, and her father was a kickboxing instructor. "I kind of fell in love with it," she said. Years later, sensing his daughter’s potential, her father put her name forward for "Fighting Chance" - GB Taekwondo’s talent scouting program.
"Fighting Chance" plucks combat sports athletes from fields including taekwondo and kickboxing to see if they have what it takes to join the grueling, elite training program at Great Britain’s medal factory - the National Taekwondo Centre in Manchester.
That application was three years ago: Maddock was invited to join the elite and has not looked back since. Naturally, her parents were delighted to hear the news of her victory in Baku. "Dad and Mum were buzzing, they were over the moon," Maddock said. "Mum was screaming down the phone – it was a nice Christmas present."
Maddock’s favorite techniques are her "check kick" - a stabbing side kick - and her punch. "Coming from kickboxing, I like to punch," she said. She also favours head shots, but the game-winning blow she deployed against Kim in Baku is a relatively new weapon in her arsenal. "The reverse turning kick is a funny one," she said. "I have been working on it for ages, so it was nice to get it in the last seconds."
As a player, she considers aggression as one of her strongest qualities. "I like to press the match down and wear the opponent down to the point where she thinks she has no other option." she said. "I am really strong and I am quite fast as well. Put the two together and they work really well."
However, she recognises that now, in premium-level competition, aggression is not enough. She has to add a layer of sophistication to her game. "I am working on being manipulative, on controlling distance and being calm and composed," she said. "Being aggressive is good - but not all the time."
Perhaps surprisingly, there is no boyfriend in her life - training does not leave much time for romantic distractions - and she lists her non-taekwondo hobbies only as "shopping". Regarding future plans, her main aim is Tokyo 2020. In the shorter term, she hopes to qualify for the World Taekwondo Championships in Muju 2017. On the way to Muju, she will be taking part in some smaller tournaments in the run up to the summer.
She thanks her sponsor, Phil Wettem Say Scaffolding - "without his sponsorship, some things would not have been achievable" - and the staff at Manchester, as well as her parents for bringing her up in combat sports. She also pays tribute to the golden girls of British taekwondo.
"To be honest, I never knew what the sport entailed at first, but when I came to the first phase of "Fighting Chance" then I saw that these girls are pretty good," she said. "I wanted to achieve what Jade and Bianca have achieved."
Having joined GB Taekwondo’s two national heroines on the podium in Baku, she may be on her way to doing exactly that.
South Korea's Oh Hye-ri: Tragedy, agony, indifference and Olympic gold
Taekwondo prioritises perseverance and indomitable spirit, but few athletes have had to nurture these qualities more than South Korea's Oh Hye-ri: she has overcome personal tragedy, agonising injury, relentless competition and public disinterest on her path to the pinnacle of taekwondo.
The tall, attractive 27-year-old, who hails from Gangneung on Korea’s East Coast, "followed her friends from school" to taekwondo classes at age eight. Personal tragedy struck at age 10, when her father passed away. Since then, Oh and her two sisters - Hye-ri is the middle sister - were raised by their mother.
Taekwondo, however, remained a constant. Along with the camaraderie she found in the dojang, she discovered a talent and began competing at age 14. She did not consider her skills mature enough for Beijing in 2008, but did set her sights on the next Olympics. However, in the run up to London 2012, tragedy struck again.
Given the number of players in Korea, the qualification process is a grueling one, and in pre-training, Oh suffered a deeply torn quad. "My thigh swelled up like a balloon," she recalled. Even so, she appeared on the mats two weeks after the injury - to no avail. "I had no strength, and I could not get the right angle for the kicks," she said "I wanted to go to London, but I couldn’t." A saying in Korean states that "an Olympic medal is like a gift from god" and that gift seemed a long way off in the summer of 2012 as she watched the competition on television.
Fast forward to 2015. The next Olympic cycle was in full swing when Oh, now injury-free, captured gold at the World Championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia. That augured well for Rio 2016. And indeed, pacing onto the mats in Rio’s Carioca Arena, she was one step below the summit of the pinnacle of sports: Olympic gold. But to receive that "gift from god" Oh first had to defeat Team France’s formidable Haby "The Abigator" Niare.
In the women's under-67 kilogram category, Niare was the number one seed, Oh the number six; the Korean was also at a height disadvantage. In the first round, Niare - a fighter with tremendous flexibility - landed her trademark "scorpion kick", a heel hook kick fired from impossibly close range, to the back of Oh’s head, for a three-point lead. She extended it in the second, going 4-0 up. But Oh was undaunted, and returned fire with a spin back kick, taking the board to 4-3. Then, in a too-quick-to-follow flurry of kicks, the board flashed.
Oh went into the attack and started pressuring the taller French fighter backward. In the third, both fighters tried to feint each other out before Niare appeared to land another scorpion kick - it registered but was disallowed. A video replay appeal failure. An ax kick attack bought Niare’s score back up, before Oh added another single point - then the action mingled fast-and-furious, close-and-mess. Both athletes went for broke with the scoreboard flashing points like a pinball game, and the referee working as hard as the fighters. The final result could have gone either way, but it ended with a tight 13-12 victory for Oh.
She does not remember much about the whirlwind fight that delivered her dream. "I was losing in the first round, but I was not nervous - I was concentrating so much I did not realise the score was that high," she said. "I don’t remember too much about it."
In a development that is typical of Oh’s up-and-down fortunes, the euphoria of Olympic gold wore off back home. "Koreans did not like the way their athletes fought in Rio," she said - a reference to the tactical "new school" approach they have adopted over the more flamboyant "old school" style. "But from the athletes’ perspective, we are fighting to win, we can’t just fight to make the game exciting and lose - it does not make any sense."
The brilliance of her achievement was also over-shadowed by the high expectations Koreans have of their taekwondo fighters. "Koreans say, 'if you are Korean, you have to get gold as it is our national sport', but I wish they would look at us in a kinder way, with warm eyes and a warm heart," she said. "If we get gold, they say, 'well, you should have!’ If we don’t, they say, 'what’s wrong with you?’”
Moreover, the success of Oh and taekwondo team mate and fellow gold winner So-hui Kim were overshadowed by the achievement of Sang-young Park, who won Korean a gold in fencing. "He became so famous that none of the other athletes could keep up with his popularity," she said. "Nobody recognises me." Remarkably, she has been offered no commercial sponsorships.
The post-Rio 2016 disappointment may have been blunted by her latest competitive triumph: gold at the Grand Prix Finals in Baku, Azerbaijan, the last major event on taekwondo’s 2016 fighting calendar. Injury free, she fought a highly professional match against veteran Chinese Taipei player Chia Chia Chuang. Although she characterises her fighting style as "shut up and attack" she took on Chuang with economical motion and sound tactics.
The Korean dominated from the start, gliding smoothly in and out, feinting with her arms and taking an early lead. That was soon reversed with Chuang going up 3-1. As usual, Oh showed her quality and in the third, went onto the attack, landing two head shots to go 7-3 up. It ended 8-4 to Oh, indicating that - following her triumph at the 2015 Worlds, the 2016 Olympics and the Grand Prix Finals - that she truly is at the top of her game.
In person, Oh is more talkative, relaxed and outgoing than some of the other Korean fighters - she displays an easy-going, natural charm. Her nickname hardly suits her athletic prowess, but does match her cheerful personality - "Duck". The nickname is a play on her given name. Oh Hye-ri sounds similar to the Korean word for duck - "ori". Despite her charm, she has no boyfriend and says, vaguely, that she would like to marry and have children after retirement. In her everyday life, she escapes the stresses of taekwondo training, relaxing by reading and taking long, midnight walks along the banks of Seoul’s Han River.
She is also a beginner in the sport which, perhaps more than any other, exemplifies solitude and freedom: surfing. "Right now, I have to do it with other beginners," she said. "But when I get better, I want to do it in places where there are not too many people around."
When travelling to competitions overseas, Oh studies English on the flights, which enables her to communicate with international players - all of whom she is on excellent terms with. On the way to this interview, she was stopped in the venue by Sweden’s Elin Johansson, who Oh had beaten the previous day, to exchange selfies.
She cites Turkey’s Servet "The Cheetah" Tazegul and Korea’s Dae-hoon Lee as the most inspirational fighters on the circuit. But, in a comment that perhaps reflects her own struggles, Oh says the players she most admires are those from developing nations like Ivory Coast - those who have to suffer and endure hardships in training.
And while her first reason to take up taekwondo was friendship, the reason she keeps doing it is not for gold-medal glory, but for the joy of the sport. "It is rare for anyone to have a career that she likes, but I love taekwondo," she said. "I am lucky."
Stars of tomorrow: Canada’s Skylar Park
Every tournament organiser secretly hopes that a hometown player will win: it adds that extra oomph to a competition and is sure to ignite not just the crowd, but the local community, too.
On day four of the WTF World Taekwondo Junior Championships in Burnaby, Canada, Winnipeg native Skylar Park delivered exactly that.
The final of the female under-59kg category pitted Park against the smaller Yen Hsin Yeh of Chinese Taipei. Almost at the opening bell, the hometown girl went one up with a body kick, prompting a fierce firefight as Yeh fought back.
But it was Park who extended her lead to 2-0, then 3-0 - the last with a thwacking round kick to the body that drew gasps and cheers. Some messy clinchwork followed before regular action resumed. Both girls then exchanged a series of head shots. The round ended 3-0 to Park.
In the second, Park again wasted no time, scoring with a fast head kick - then another – before tumbling to the mats after Yeh connected with a head kick of her own. The board surged to 12-3, but the lass from Chinese Taipei was still in the fight.
She counterattacked with determination - but it was the Canadian fighter who landed yet another head kick. By now, she was looking very, very dominant. A break in the torrid action was called, with the bout at 15-4, as Park’s torso armour was re-secured.
Park landed a picture-perfect side kick that did not register on the PSS, then was forced out of the ring. Both girls clinched and fired head kicks, the two fighters’ techniques almost cancelling each other out. But Park’s technical mastery and excellence of technique were becoming evident - she scored with a side kick from the extreme close range. The round ended 16-5.
As the bell rang on round three, Yeh had everything to fight for. Both girls were now fighting using the entire ring to manoeuver - with Park again unleashing a textbook side kick. Then Yeh landed an out-of-nowhere head kick, raising her score to 8-16. There was a brief slowdown - the prior tempo had been too fast - then Park’s cut kick scored again for 17-8.
Yeh was looking desperate. She hopped across the floor, flicking our leading leg on the high line, hunting Park’s head; the Canadian did well to evade. Then - suddenly - it was all over: the Canadian impacted with a head kick that gave her the victory on a 20-8 point difference. It had been a fine performance of clean and stylish taekwondo that delighted both the crowd and her team mates.
Park bowed to the crowd, dashed to the stands, grabbed a national flag and stormed back onto the stage - where a duo of beaming Mounties, in full dress uniform, joined her for an impromptu (and unscheduled) victory celebration. And if the ringside hug between Park and her coach looked particularly tight, it was - they are also daughter and father.
Park’s seizure of a World Championship title was, perhaps, predestined: she has not two, but three generations of taekwondo blood running through her veins. The daughter of Master Jae Park (her coach) she is the granddaughter of Master Deuk-hwa Park, who migrated from Korea to Canada in 1977; out of his 10 grandchildren, nine hold black belts. The family runs a successful dojang in Winnipeg.
With this pedigree, it is not surprising that Park, 17, has been doing taekwondo "since I could walk." Her father recognised that she had the strong mind that the sport demands as early as age three. Today, she wears a third-dan black belt.
The gold-medal match went according to plan. "It was just to go there and fight with confidence, to fight how I know I can," she said. "The plan was to go in strong from the beginning."
She plans to transition up to seniors, and has already gone toe-to-toe with world-class senior competition at the Dutch and Belgian Opens in 2015. In the Dutch competition, she faced off against 2016 Olympic silver medalist Eva Calvo-Gomez, losing just 6-3. For a junior to lose by such a small margin to one of the top players in the game suggests stratospheric potential.
With junior ranking points now being transferable to the seniors, she expects to be competing in the elite Grand Prix series next year.
"In the Olympic division at under-57kg, she will be in the top 15," her father said, confidently. As for her ambitions in the sport she is - naturally - looking over the eastern horizon toward the Tokyo in 2020.
But life will not just be taekwondo. She also hopes to go to university next year, though she is not yet clear on what her major will be. "Something sport related," she said. She also enjoys soccer and golf, but despite her good looks and weapons-grade physique, has no boyfriend.
In terms of techniques, she said: "I like my side kick as a base - but I like to do fancier kicks when I can." In terms of physique, her father reckons his daughter is perfectly engineered for the sport. "Her body is made for taekwondo: she is long and lean, she has fast-twitch muscles - she has all the attributes to succeed in taekwondo," he said. "And she can do all her techniques on both sides."
How about her mind game? Her father comes back with a surprising answer.
"Her mental game is weaker than more than 50 percent of the athletes - and that is part of the plan!," Park Sr confided. "Athletes that have a strong mental game at the beginning do not emphasise the physical so much, as they get away with using strategy. In my opinion, strategy can come later on, but if you don’t develop a physical base it is too late - the body only gives you a certain amount of time to develop; the mind can always develop."
Adalis Munoz: Dreaming of an Olympic Poomsae routine
Poomsae taekwondo has grown dramatically in recent years and for athletes like 20-year-old American Adalis Munoz the hope is that one day the discipline might - just might - join kyorugi in the world’s ultimate sporting arena: The Olympic Games.
"I’m excited to see how poomsae is growing," Munoz said. "There has definitely been a rise in competition over the past two years. I hope that poomsae will be included in the Olympics."
While there are, as yet, no indications that poomsae will get the Olympic nod, the growth was very clear to see at the 10th WTF World Taekwondo Poomsae Championships, in Lima, Peru, which boasted a record number of athletes and teams.
Munoz took gold in the individual freestyle – defending the gold medal she had won two years earlier. Having now won gold at two consecutive World Championships and many national titles, Munoz is now a well-established name in freestyle poomsae.
She trains six hours a day and is always pushing herself to improve. "I worked hard on jumping higher," she said. "I wanted to showcase getting comfortable in the air and not being afraid of going higher."
Munoz choreographs her own routines with her mother. Only then does she share them with her coach, Barbara Brand, to check what looks good and what does not - the end result is 80 per cent of her final programme comes from herself. This allows her to focus her routine on what she believes are winning elements such as soaring jumps and cartwheels - while making sure the routine is "practica" and not too "crazy".
Munoz believes it’s important there are effective fighting applications in her routine: "That’s part of tradition." But it is the freedom freestyle offers her that really attracts her to the sport. "Freedom to express yourself, with your music choice," she advised. "If you want the audience to feel something, you put in emotion."
At just 20, Munoz continues to hope that one day she will have the chance to express herself and light up the audience on the Olympic stage.
Tijana 'Tica' Bogdanovic: Serbian Schoolgirl Wins Silver Medal
Serbian heroine Tijana Bogdanovic returned home to Belgrade with her Olympic medal around her neck - but had only a limited time to enjoy the celebrations before she was summoned away for her next important engagement.
"Everybody is extremely happy, they cannot wait for me to come," she said following Rio 2016. "But I will have only about 10 days’ summer break - then I start school on September 1."
Yes, you read that right. The Serbian who captured Olympic silver in a tight, hard-fought bout against Team Korea’s So-hui Kim in Rio de Janeiro is not a pro athlete, working out full-time, day in and day out: she is still a high-school student.
Which explains why she wants to extend her thanks not just to her coaching team, but also to her school buddies. "I had great support from my friends and my teachers, they helped me a lot during my period of absence," she said.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the upbeat 18-year-old wunderkind started taekwondo at a very tender age.
"When I was four, my parents took me to a taekwondo club and I fell in love with it at first sight – it is very attractive," Bogdanovic said. "In taekwondo, you have a lot of adrenaline as [the match] only takes six minutes - you have to withstand the pressure in a short period, you have to show yourself."
She did exactly that in Carioca Arena 3 on the first day of the four-day taekwondo competition. Fighting her way through the preliminaries, the number-eight seed shocked the punditry by ejecting the athlete who was widely considered the most dominant fighter in the sport: China’s previously unbeatable Jingyu Wu, a double Olympic medalist and the top seed in the women under-49kg category.
By the evening, Bogdanovic - whose previous biggest wins had been gold at the European Championships and bronze at the World Championships - had battled her way through to the finals. There, she would face off against Team Korea’s So-hui Kim, the seventh seed.
From the outset, the Serbian teenager, with her height advantage, fought forward, forcing the Korean to dance around the edge of the mats. But it was the more experienced Kim who was more accurate with her legs, winning the first round 2-1. The second continued the same way, with Kim displaying lively footwork to escape the Serbian’s attack. Bogdanovic, trying to land a punch, took a crescent kick to the head; the round ended 5-2.
In the third, the score was 4-6 to the Korean but Bogdanovic applied maximum pressure, and Kim visited the mats repeatedly. In the last 11 seconds, Bogdanovic was virtually chasing her target around the field of play. Kim held off this last-minute charge, taking the match and the gold medal, 7-6 – despite going down in what looked like the final second.
Some observers thought that Kim, who had racked up almost the maximum number of penalties for falling, should have been disqualified for her last-second fall - but not her opponent.
"I feel a bit sorry that everybody is talking about that last second, as I think that all people are allowed to make mistakes - even if you are a judge," said Bogdanovic. "It is not something that we should bother about too much."
Just being at the Olympic Games was an awesome experience for a schoolgirl - though at first she was underwhelmed.
"Since this is my first Olympic Games, I was not really impressed by the Olympic Village and everything, but as time went by, I was really overwhelmed by the atmosphere in the Serbian team, exchanging good, positive vibes between the athletes on the team," she said. "I enjoyed all that experience"
Of course, the highlight was winning the medal.
"It was a great experience in terms of my development because it is not only the day of competition, but all I had gone through before the competition, all the preparation," she said. "The day of competition is like the top of the cake - when you go to an exam you show what you were working for, so of course, I am happy and proud."
She rates her strengths as a fighter as flexibility and technical skill: her favored technique is that classic of taekwondo, the round kick to the head. In terms of her athletic personality, she is still a little unsure. "In this period of my life, since I am still 18, I am still developing and would describe myself only as ‘well disciplined,’” she said. "I just listen to my coach and try to be the best student."
Like many teens, her future plans are unclear. She has no boyfriend, but is "very interested and motivated to work with kids." She plans to go to university, but has not yet chosen a major.
Naturally, the sport she has been practicing for 14 years will remain central in her life.
"The best place to find me is our taekwondo club as I really feel great when I am in training - I feel myself there, I feel I belong there," she said. "Also, when I have time, I am always with friends from the club."
Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin: Kicking open the door for Iranian women
It was on Day two of the Olympic taekwondo competition at Carioca Arena 3 in Rio’s Barra Olympic Park that history was written.
The final buzzer rang on the bronze medal match in the women’s -57kg category and an 18-year-old athlete from Karaj, Iran, had done something that had never been done before: Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin was the first female Iranian athlete to win an Olympic medal - not just in taekwondo, but in any discipline.
Taking on Sweden’s Nikita Glasnovic, the Iranian asserted her dominance early and extended it with a head kick that drew roars from the crowd. The Swede, despite firing off countless kicks, was unable to find the range and Alizadeh Zenoorin - after a final- seconds countdown from the crowd - won with rare conviction. She ended it by falling forward and kissing the field of play, then embracing her coach and taking photos with the crowd.
“I am very pleased to get this first medal -v ery pleased! - and very pleased for the girls of Iran,” said Alizadeh Zenoorin, speaking one day after her fight. “I had tears in my eyes from joy, but I also had a little thought: ‘I would love this to have been gold.’”
Even so, the colour of her medal is overshadowed by the enormity of her achievement.
“When I came here I wanted to break this enclosure, open the door, help other female athletes and also create a kind of self-confidence for people to go out there and do it,” she said.
In that sense, Rio is definitely “mission accomplished.”
On the personal front Alizadeh Zenoorin’s bronze medal victory is going to be a life-changing event, for she embodies the sportive empowerment of Iranian women. “Obviously, now my life is going to change in that I have to be a role model,” she mused. “It will be hard for me and my social life will change but I hope to be a good representative and a good person in society for people to follow.”
Her country has fully recognised the significance of what has happened. Iranian media are full of her pictures; her photo portrait has been emblazoned across a giant poster decorating a central Tehran overpass; actors and celebrities are lining up to congratulate her when she lands; there are even clips up on social media of inspired Iranian grandmothers performing zany taekwondo moves.
“Surely all the public in Iran are very pleased and happy to see my achievement,” she said “There is no restriction for female activities in [Iranian] sport and I hope from now on there will be lots of medals to follow.”
Her coach, Mahroo Komrani Najaf Abadi, reckons her protégé has kicked down the last barrier for female sport in Iran. “I want everybody to know that in Iran we all love and enjoy sport the same way men do, it is the same for women and men,” she said. “The only difference between rest of world and Iran is the boys train with male instructors and the girls train with female instructors.”
Alizadeh Zenoorin’s unexpected triumph - she was the Olympic tenth seed and her world ranking is 21st in a tough category that includes such high-profile stars a Team GB’s Jade Jones, Spain’s Eva Calvo Gomez and Egypt’s Hedaya Wahba - may mitigate the disaster that befell the Iranian men. Iran is a taekwondo superpower and the team it fielded in Rio was best-of-breed. But from day one, it all fell apart.
Farzan “The Tsunami” Ashourzadeh Fallah, the number-one seed and the favorite to win the -58kg went out in his very first match. Mahdi “The Terminator” Khobabakhshi was the number-one seed and the favorite to win the -80kg: he went out in his second match. Sajjad Mardani, the number-two seed and a strong medal possibility in the men +80kg also went down in his second fight. The Rio results indicate that the rest of the world has finally worked out how to beat the Iranian powerhouses.
Those matches must have been hard for Alizadeh Zenoorin to watch. And her own preparation for Rio was agonising. “Obviously, it was hard to come here and I had a lot of stress,” she said. “I lost 10 kilos to be ready for this competition” (Given that Alizadeh Zenoorin fights in the -57kg category, the extreme nature of that weight loss may be appreciated). Still, the reward has been worthwhile. “I worked hard to get a medal. I thank God for this opportunity and I hope to be a good role model,” she said.
At home, she is a student who, between classes and taekwondo sessions, enjoys hiking and climbing. In the future, she plans to finish her university degree in physiotherapy, become a physio, and teach taekwondo.
But given that she is aged just 18, there is more immediate business awaiting her on competition mats worldwide.
“She is very clever, she has a lot of patience and she is also, in my opinion, one of the best players in the world in taekwondo,” said her coach, Mahroo Komrani Najaf Abadi. “Kimia has beaten [Rio gold medalist] Jade Jones twice. (Indeed, on the sidelines of the competition mats, one taekwondo pundit opined that it was fortunate for Great Britain that the team’s golden athlete was not drawn against Alizadeh Zenoorin in the preliminaries).
“I would love to have faced her in the finals, I have competed against her four times and beaten her twice,” Alizadeh Zenoorin added. “A lot of people in my weight I have competed against and beaten, I have beaten others before who are here - but unfortunately, I could not do it this time.”
She cites Iranian taekwondo legend Hadi Saei, Team Korea bronze medalist Dae-hoon Lee and Team China double Olympic gold medalist Jingyu Wu as her inspirations in the sport. With her height - she is a good head taller than Jones - and her weaponry - her round kick to the body is a consistent scoring technique - she has all the right physical qualities to win more medals.
Her immediate goal is next year’s World Championships in Muju, South Korea. “Nobody from Iran has taken gold at the World Taekwondo Championships in the females so I would like to go there and win that medal, too,” she said.
And in four years – aged just 22 – it will be Tokyo 2020.
“When I arrive in Iran, I want to rest to heal my injuries, then work hard to change the colour of the medal I have now,” she said.
So-hui Kim: From Poor Health to Olympic Triumph
The first gold medal of the Rio 2016 taekwondo competition was won by a young fighter who was far from being a natural athlete. In fact, So-hui Kim’s original aim in learning the sport was to upgrade her then-poor physique.
“I took taekwondo up when I was nine as I was very weak and ill - I took it up for my health,” said Kim. “My parents suggested starting it, and now I am all good.”
“All good” is an understatement: Kim has today cast off her weakling status and has transformed into an elite athlete competing and winning at the highest level of taekwondo. The 22-year old, who grew up in the countryside in Chuncheon before migrating to Seoul for high school, captured the ultimate medal in sport at the Carioca Arena 3 in Rio’s Barra Olympic Park, when she won gold in the women’s -49kg category.
But it was no easy match.
Kim, the seventh seed in the women’s -49kg category, would be fighting against eighth-seeded Tijana Bogdanovic who had the height (and probably strength) advantage. Earlier in the day, the Serbian had stunned the taekwondo world by comprehensively defeating arguably the most dominant fighter in the sport, China’s double Olympic gold medalist Jingyu Wu, 17-7; Wu had been gunning for what would have been a record third Olympic taekwondo gold. “I was not nervous to face Bogdanovic, I was worried about Wu,” said Kim. “I expected to fight with Wu at the final, I had prepared a lot for Wu.”
The fact that Bogdanovic had ejected Wu made very clear that Kim was facing a well-prepared, top-drawer opponent.
From the outset, the Serbian, with her height advantage, fought forward, forcing Kim to dance around the edge of the mats. But it was the Korean who was more accurate with her legs, winning the first round 2-1. The second continued the same way, with Kim displaying lively footwork to escape the Serbian’s attack. Bogdanovic, trying to land a punch, took a crescent kick to the head; the round ended 5-2. In the third, the score was 6-4 to the Korean but Bogdanovic put the pressure on, and Kim visited the mats repeatedly. In the last 11 seconds, Bogdanovic was chasing her target around the field of play but Kim held off the desperate last-minute attack, taking the match and gold medal, 7-6.
After the match she said she had “prayed to become a champion” and gave thanks to her family and nation for the support she had received.
Although it had been a close-run thing - Kim’s fall just as the final buzzer rang could have cost her the match - the fight had gone according to plan. “The Serbian girl is good at face kicks so I was concerned about that,” Kim said. “I thought that if I could beat her face kick, it would break her mentality. The back step and footwork was the plan.”
Oddly, the manner of her victory came in for a fair amount of online criticism in Korea, with some critiquing her style and strategy. In fact, Kim’s evasive, counter-attacking game plan showcased true mastery of lateral footwork and fighting off of the back leg - which causes one to question the technical knowledge of her armchair critics.
Olympic gold is just the latest in the fourth-dan’s list of accomplishments, which include gold at the 2015 Grand Prix tournament in Moscow, and gold in the -46kg category at the 2013 World Championships in Puebla, Mexico. As a taekwondo fighter she reels of her list of advantages. “Moving fast, I play a timing game and strike at the right time,” she said. “I like the back kick best of all - it is a special kick and I can fire it from both legs.”
Expect to see more of Kim in the future: Given her tender age, she has a long fighting career stretching ahead of her. “I always challenge the next one,” she said. “I want to go to Tokyo 2020 if possible.”
The people who got their formerly sickly daughter into the sport were at ringside for her triumph. “My parents were in Rio, and they were in tears, especially my mom,” she said.
But what about her own emotions? How did it feel to capture the ultimate prize?
“I’d always dreamt of being an Olympic gold medalist,” she said. “I realised the dream.”
Pita Nikolas Taufatofua: Tonga’s gift to taekwondo vows to give back
He did not win a medal in Rio, but Tongan athlete Pita Nikolas Taufatofua may just be the most famous face - or rather, body - to emerge from the 2016 Olympic Games.
When he marched into the stadium as his nation’s standard bearer during the Olympic Opening ceremony, bare-breasted, muscular and glistening, women around the world swooned, men invested in gym memberships and body oil and the Internet went wild, making the Tongan taekwondo fighter the first (and arguably the biggest) viral hit of Rio 2016.
What does he make of his overnight success?
“It was not overnight!,” said the smiling 32-year-old who, though of Tongan birth, lives and works in Brisbane, Australia. “This was 20 years of taekwondo discipline to get me to this point! This point was just the tip of the iceberg!”
Even so, the constant stream of media attention has been a surprise.
“We thought, ‘Oh, it will settle down and I will have time to focus on training,’ but it just got bigger!,” he said during an interview with WTF Communications in the athlete warm-up area of Carioca Arena 3, in Rio’s Barra Olympic Park. “We have had media from all over the world: From Argentina, Brazil, Korea, China, Australia, America….”
Indeed. During and after the Opening Ceremony, there were 45 million hits on Google asking “Where is Tonga?” and “What Sport Does Taufatofua Do?” He has since been featured in the Washington Post, TIME magazine, Entertainment Weekly, the Wall Street Journal and a host of other media that are virgin territory for taekwondo fighters. Some 100 million viewers tuned in during his appearance on “The Today Show,” and George Bush’s daughter was filmed oiling him up. (“Who’s the superpower now?,” he jokes) Finally, his (again, topless) appearance at the Olympic Closing Ceremony generated a second wave of hysteria.
In short, he has been given an opportunity - and it is one that he intends to take full advantage of. “It is important for me to get Tonga out to the world,” he said. “And to get taekwondo out to the world, as well.” In fact, his nickname is “The Real Tongan Ninja.” “There was an old movie called ‘The Tongan Ninja,’” he explained. “So people started to say, ‘We need to call him, The Real Tongan Ninja.’”
While he is understandably reluctant to discuss any of the commercial sponsorship opportunities that have suddenly become available, he knows that the money could be a game changer for his cash-strapped region. “We have been self-funded for years,” he said. “It has been tough, a very tough time for us.”
His Olympic baptism of fire was tough, too, as his +80kg fight pitted him against Iranian top gun Sajjad Mardani. It proved a one-sided war. While Taufatofua was game, and showcased a wide range of techniques, Mardani delivered a stern lesson, taking the match 16-1.
“I did not realise how quick his front leg was - I did not think it would reach me, my distance was off,” the Tongan mused, post-fight. “But we fought, we shook hands, we gave the crowd a show and the crowd was happy - at my expense!
“That is the taekwondo we have to take to the world!”
The experience gulf between Mardani, a frequent fixture on the international circuit and world ranked number three, and Taufatofua, world ranked number 157, was as wide as the geographical gulf between Iran and the Pacific Island nation: It was only the Tongan’s third fight in three years.
“I have not fought anyone on that level that I can remember, I don’t have world ranking points as I could not afford to go to the European Opens or the Grand Prix,” he said. “But I feel I have enough tools if I could grow them. And we have shown the world that Tonga is a small nation, but big-hearted.”
The commercial opportunities which his sudden fame have generated could help transform the underfunded state of Oceania taekwondo - which failed to win any medals in Rio. “We can really bring up the next generation of athletes and get funding for the Pacific, this is a big thing for us,” he said. “We are a small country, but now we have a big voice.”
And it is an educated voice - Taufatofua is no muscle head. Professionally, he is a counsellor for homeless youth, a job in which his strong Christian faith and his taekwondo training - training he has been engaged in since he was five years old - provide a powerful foundation. “I use the discipline of taekwondo to help people,” he said. “I work full time, I train full time and I study full time.”
Even so, as the new poster athlete for taekwondo as a form of physical conditioning, he has strong views on health and fitness, insisting that functional strength is more important than aesthetic looks.
His power workout consists of plyometric routines, kettlebell routines, functional weight training and cable/pulley exercises. For cardio, he does wind sprints on the incline treadmill: 10-15 second sprints, then 30 seconds break. And for flexibility, he stretches twice a day, both the front and rear lines of the body.
Where does taekwondo slot into the fitness matrix? “Martial arts is fundamental, it offers a couple of things which normal bodybuilding does not,” he said. “It changes your mind as well as your body; it makes you stronger mentally, then your body follows.”
The chief reason people fail to attain physical fitness, he believes, is their inability to persevere. “People give up way too easily, they look for the quick-and-easy method,” he opined. “The reality is that you have to go through the valley to reach the mountain.”
Another problem is the temptations of modern life. “I feel men give up a little bit too early,” he said. “They are at this point where it is too hard, it is easier to eat crap food and drink crap drinks.”
The results of “The Real Tongan Ninja’s” dedication are built into the physique he showcased to the world, drenched in baby oil. “Not baby oil,” he insisted. “Coconut oil!”
So what made him decide to go out bare-breasted, instead of in a conventional blazer and slacks?
Was it male pride? Or perhaps the egotism of the elite athlete?
He turns serious. “As opposed to the Western influence, the blazer, we wanted to go out wearing what our ancestors wore into battle 200 years ago,” he said.
Spoken like a warrior.
Wu Jingyu: China's quiet joy
The WTF’s “2015 Female Player of the Year” is one of the most recognised and respected names in the taekwondo and Olympic movements. It was not ever thus for China’s Jingyu Wu, but her future fame may have been prefigured in of those curious coincidences that can only happen in real life - for if they occurred in literature, they would be unbelievable.
In 2003, Wu, then an unknown, provincial-level taekwondo player, was chosen to play a bit part in a movie. Named “Taekwondo” and starring well-known Chinese actress Tao Hong, the film told the story of a girl who becomes an Olympic champion in the sport.
Wu played the star as a youth in a role that gave her perhaps five minutes of screen time. “I was just a common athlete at the time,” Wu recalls. “Just a little girl.”
Fast forward five years to 2008 and the Beijing Olympics. When the dust had settled in the arena, the girl from the Jiangsu Province who had played a filmic taekwondo champion was wearing a real-life Olympic gold medal around her neck. Reality had mirrored fiction.
Wu repeated her gold medal heroics in London 2012, and, in the female under 49kg category the diminutive Chinese is the favourite for a third gold in Rio 2016. That would ensure her a place in the history books as the first taekwondo player ever to earn three Olympic golds.
She may be the most dominant female player in the sport. Her footwork is superlative and her timing almost supernatural, making her appear one step ahead of her opponents. She prefers the front-leg kick, but has extraordinary flexibility, and is able to score from any height and angle - a talent which has earned her the nickname “Superkicker.”
Taekwondo pundits are in awe at her mastery of the game.
“She shows everything - mental game, physical game, style, fighting pattern - that means, the template for the fight - and strategy,” said WTF director general Yang Jin-bang. “She tries to be spectacular, to show all the taekwondo skills,” added another taekwondo watcher. “In my opinion, she is on a level above all the other athletes.”
Yet on the mats, she does not express the passion of many athletes; in the eye of the storm, she maintains an icy composure. “I am very calm,” she admits. So is she stand-offish?
No. Despite her towering skill, Wu is tiny in stature. In person, she displays real charm, fiddling with the flowers on the table during the interview, frequently beaming with a shy, girlish grin. She has adopted the English name “Joy” - a direct translation of her Chinese name, Jingyu - and it is appropriate: She epitomises the quality, albeit in a quiet, understated manner.
Wu’s taekwondo story started at age 13. As a child she was raised by her grandmother in the town of Jingdezhen, famed as the porcelain capital of China, in Jiangxi Province. She was good at sports, and a particularly fast runner.
One day, a taekwondo coach arrived at her school, scouting fresh talent. Someone suggested he take a look at Wu. The coach liked what he saw; Wu took up the sport; and after just two months training, she won the Jiangsu Provincial Championships. Not bad for a 13-year-old.
So was she a natural talent? “You could say that,” she said - but credits her success to bitterly hard training. For three years, from 15 to 18, she built a foundation by training a murderous 10 hours per day. “I used those three years,” she said. “Most people would need 10 years!”
Due to her stature, she had to work extra hard. “At the beginning, nobody cared about me because I was very tiny, nobody thought I would be world champion.” she said. “I had to get stronger and fight everyone in every competition.”
Even today, the double Olympic gold medalist still trains five hours daily.
Like many fighters, she is not completely happy with the current game. “The PSS is a little sensitive so you just need just a front-leg kick, but that is not the real taekwondo, nobody likes to watch it,” she said. “I like to use the front leg but I do a lot of different things with it.”
Although China boasts a universe of home-grown martial arts - ranging from hard systems patterned after animals such as tigers and eagles to the soft, philosophically influenced taijiquan – the country has enthusiastically embraced taekwondo. “There are almost 20,000 clubs across China,” she said. “A lot of children practice it, so it gets public recognition.”
The sport has been good to Wu. “Choosing to do taekwondo was the best decision in my life,” she said. Her husband of three years added ruefully, “She has two loves - taekwondo and me!” She has just one regret. When her grandmother - who had raised and taken care of the young Wu until she joined the Jiangxi Provincial Team - passed away, Wu was competing, so could not be there.
In addition to training, Wu teaches sport at Renmin University in Beijing and spends as much time as possible preaching to children and youth on the benefits of sport and Olympism. She also donates to, and supplies underprivileged children with sporting equipment. When presenting to youth, Wu tries to inspire them with her own life lessons. “First - train hard! Second - never give up!” she said. “A human being can do anything with self-belief.”
Her husband, Huo Kun, runs a company promoting Olympism, “Exceptional.” He possesses a large collection of Olympic memorabilia but admits that his most prized exhibits are Wu’s two gold medals, not to mention Wu herself.
The couple believes Wu’s Olympic destiny may have been set in the stars. “I was born on July 13, 1987,” she said. “That was a very important day for the Chinese Olympic movement, as we won the bid for the Beijing Olympics on July 13, 2001.” In London, she won gold on August 8, 2012; August 8, 2008, had been the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.
The duo have been befriended by IOC President Thomas Bach, who wrote the foreword for their jointly authored book “Olympic Love.”
Her win as “the 2015 Female Player of the Year” at the National Theater in Mexico City was no surprise. Virtually all her peers are in awe of her mastery of the sport and say how likeable she is in person. Having won gold at the Mexico City 2015 Grand Prix Final in convincing style, Wu has comfortably earned her country a spot in Rio. She still finds “hard training no problem,” but now she is 28 - an “advanced” age for an elite athlete – she is boxing clever: “The most important thing is technique and scientific fighting,” she said, adding that she will sit down with Team China to analyze all the opposition.
However, she admits she does not have the hunger for gold in Rio that she had in Beijing and London. So why is she competing? “Because I love taekwondo!” she said. “After Rio, maybe I will retire, but competition is very, very precious to me, I want to enjoy every moment. After I retire, there will be no more.”
There is also the matter of children. “I would like to have a baby,” she said. “One? Two? Three? Four? Five? Maybe one will be enough!”
Beyond taekwondo, she enjoys hand arts, such as flower arranging, painting, “though I am not that good,” and cooking, her husband confirms that she is skilled in that area.
If she does retire, post-Rio, she will continue to teach sport, and would like to open a taekwondo school and coffee shop. “I want to relax after all the hard training,” she said. “So I will make the club near the coffee shop, and will be able to watch the taekwondo fighters!”
The name of the club she envisions reflects her name, her outlook and her life experience: “Joy Taekwondo.”
Cheick Sallah Cisse: "I am not afraid of anybody"
It promised to be an epic clash - perhaps the best match-up of the 2015 WTF World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final in Mexico City, Mexico on December 5 and 6.
In the men’s under 80kg category, Ivory Coast's Cheick Sallah Cisse is one of the most consistent fighters in the sport and the pride of African taekwondo. Moldova’s Aaron Cook is perhaps the sport’s most crowd-pleasing fighter, noted for his all-out attacks and his use of spectacular kicks.
The two had done battle four times previously. Each had walked away with two victories. In Mexico City, at the season’s grand finale, the crowd anticipated an epic battle. They would not be disappointed.
Cook is a 100-per cent offensive fighter - so from the opening bell, Cisse preempted his opponent by charging forward into an attack of his own. Many taekwondo matches are tactical, stand-off contests with athletes foot-fencing at distance, with the result being decided by one or two points. This was the opposite.
The crowd gaped, open-mouthed: The two athletes were defying the city’s notorious, energy-sapping altitude. All-out combat raged, as the fighters met head-to-head, bringing to bear every weapon in the taekwondo arsenal.
It ended 16-10 to the Moldovan. The agony of defeat was evident as Cisse, exhausted and devastated, dropped face down onto the mats. Cook dropped down beside him, putting his arm around his shoulders in an effort to console him. It was a powerful moment: The brotherhood of athletes.
Cook went on to win silver at the championship; his team admitted that their entire strategy for the competition had been based upon defeating Cisse.
Cisse, despite having been eliminated in his opening match, earned a place for his National Olympic Committee to Rio 2016 on ranking points.
Later on the same day, he had recovered. Asked what it had felt like out there, he said simply, “I came for gold. I was disappointed.” In a fight post mortem, he admitted his offensive strategy had been undermined by Cook’s footwork. “I stated very strong but Aaron was cancelling me by moving around,” he said. “I should have changed my game.”
On the conditioning front, he had also been undone by the altitude, having had just three days of training. “I had not expected it,” he admitted. “It affected me a lot.”
Born in the town of Bouake, but now resident in Cote d’Ivoire’s capital of Abaijan, Cisse, 22, started martial arts with karate at the age of 5. When he moved to the capital at age 8, he switched styles to taekwondo. The rest is history.
He lists his three major competitive achievements as a gold medal at the Moscow Grand Prix Series 1, gold at the Brazzaville African Games 2015, and silver at the 2015 World Universiade in Gwangju, Korea. A consistent fighter, he has also won medals at the Samsun and Manchester Grand Prix events.
Asked to list his key strengths he puts spirit at top. “I am not afraid of anyone,” he said. As regards physical attributes, he said, “I have the prototypical physique of the new style: good flexibility and good height.”
Ivory Coast is one of Africa’s, and the world’s, strongest taekwondo nations. The country was, back in 1985, the number two nation for the sport after South Korea, something Cisse’s coach, Attada Tadjou, attributes to Patrice Remark, the country’s former technical director and current United States coach. It was this competitive success that made the sport so popular.
Yet despite the popularity of the sport in the African nation, Cisse admits that being a taekwondo athlete is a struggle.
“I receive a lot of media attention as I am doing well, but in terms of financial support, though I get support to go to competitions, it is tough financially.” He especially cites the support that the Cote d’Ivoire Taekwondo Federation President Bambacheick Daniel has personally extended to him. And he hopes for better things next year. “Now that I am qualified for the Olympics, I expect to get more support.”
An electrical engineering major, Cisse has currently suspended his studies to prepare for the Olympics. After Mexico City, his first step on the road to Rio is recuperation.
“I am going to rest as I had to give a lot of fights this year - too many,” he said. Indeed, many athletes comment on 2015’s grueling competitive schedule: After the May World Championships, the four-series Grand Prix took place in the year’s second half.
Cisse faced a particularly diabolical schedule in September. After winning the African Games title in Brazzaville, the Republic of the Congo, which ended on September 19, he jumped on a flight to Samsun, Turkey, to fight in the Grand Prix Series 2. He made it through to the final - also on September 19. There, he fought through to the finals, but after stalking on to the mats to face Iran’s Mahdi “The Terminator” he declared - to the astonishment of the crowd - “No mas.”
“What happened was, I was coming from African Games. I travelled and just weighed in and fought,” he recalled. “I was too tired and I had too many bruises to fight Khodabakhshi. I was in the final – but I stopped.”
After resting following a torrid 2015, the next step for Cisse is analysis. “We are going to analyze everything that happened, then make assessments, then plan, then go back to do some fighting,’” said Cisse’s coach, Attada Tadjou.
Cisse himself said he has no concerns. “I am not worried, I have a chance,” he said. “When I came here, my strategy did not work, but I have plenty of time to make some adjustments.”
As far as Cisse’s own analysis goes, he is respectful about his potential competitors in Rio. “Aaron Cook’s game is different to other people’s, he uses a dynamic style, not just in profile with the front leg,” he said. “I like his game – he did not change. He is a good fighter.”
Regarding Iran’s Mahdi Khodabashkhi, he said, “He is very good: I have never fought him...[but] he is not dangerous to me.”
As for Russia’s Albert Gaun, he said, “I beat him by 12 points in the Moscow Grand Prix, but he is good as well - he has his flavour.”
And what of Cisse himself? “He loves training – anytime, anywhere – and he has a winning spirit,” said Tadjou. “Sometimes he wants to do his own thing, but is very coachable - he is a dream for a coach.”
His student’s dream is simple: “Olympic gold.”
Mahdi Khodabakhshi: Iranian Terminator
Ask any taekwondo pundit what the most dominant fighting machine in the sport is at present, and chances are good that the answer will be two words: “Mahdi Khodabakhshi.”
Although he was sidelined by injury and did not make the recent Mexico City Grand Prix Final, the Iranian has won his nation a spot in Rio 2016 with flying colors. He is the number-one ranked player in the men’s under 80kg division - arguably, the fiercest competitive category in the game. He is the current world champion, the 2014 Asian Games champion and holds three Grand Prix gold medals.
His nickname is “The Terminator” but his surname may be even more appropriate to his phenomenal talent: in Farsi, “Khodabakhshi” means “God Given.”
If that talent was granted by God, it was incubated by his father. The 24-year-old started taekwondo under the tutelage of Khodabakhshi Sr. at the age of four - or, as he puts it himself, “since I grew arms and legs!” It was no easy regimen: “I did not like taekwondo, but my father forced me to do it,” he said. “My whole family practice; my sister is an instructor; my uncles are instructors.”
Now a fourth dan, he has been a staple on the formidable Iranian men’s team for four years and may well be its most valuable property.
The match which planted him firmly on the map was his battle against Aaron Cook in the Manchester Grand Prix Final in 2013. At the time Cook, then fighting for the Isle of Man, was both the number one in the category and a massive and perennial crowd favorite. “It was very interesting, my first time to fight Aaron,” Khodabakhshi recalled. “The whole audience was behind Aaron, and that made me even more motivated to win.”
The Iranian picked off points for an early lead. Cook, however, never says die, and in the third round he surged out like a typhoon, lunging across the mats in a barrage of no-holds-barred assaults, launching combination round kicks and spin kicks. The Iranian kept his cool and fought to keep Cook at distance. “I needed very single point I could get,” Khodabakhshi said. “It was one of the best fights ever.” The final score: 13-11 to the Iranian.
If there is a perfect physique for taekwondo, Khodabakhshi owns it. He is tall, lean and long-limbed.
Although he possesses a weapons-grade front leg, his favourite technique is the jump spinning round kick, unleashed against either body or face. Fighting from a wide, side-on stance, using his hands to feint and employing a dance-like torso movement, he looks confident, dangerous and stylish.
Naturally, he is a crowd pleaser. “I want my audience to enjoy my games,” he said, “But my movement is not intentional - when I watch myself I think, ‘What the hell was I doing?’ I have no idea!”
He credits rigorous training for the development of his killer front leg: “I believe my legs and my backside are my strengths,” he said. “Because of the new system, we have to work hard on front-leg kicks, and that has made my legs very strong.”
The modern game, however, requires more than just physical attributes. “I am very analytical,” he said. “Every person I am going to fight, I analyse.”
But nobody is indestructible - a lesson Khodabakhshi learned in October. A firm favorite for gold at the 2015 Manchester Grand Prix Series 3, he went onto the mats against Britain's Lutalo Muhammad in the quarter-finals. The audience, excited to see “The Terminator” take on the home-town boy, went quiet after Khodabakhshi lurched. Clearly, something bad had happened. The Iranian struggled - against obvious agony - to continue, before the fight was halted: He had suffered a severe angle sprain.
Recovery has been slow. In order to make the weight for the GP Series 2 in Samsun, Turkey and Series 3 in Manchester, UK, “I got weaker and lowered my immune system,” Khodabakhshi said. That explains his very conspicuous absence from the Grand Prix Final in Mexico City. However, he expects to be back to full fighting fitness by the year-end.
His success on the mats in the 2014 and 2015 seasons - not to mention his reputation as the man to beat - indicate that his conditioning, technique, tactics and training are best-of-breed. But in the months leading up to the Rio Olympics, he plans to radically overhaul his game. “I believe that I am being watched and analysed by other players, and I don’t want them to read my hand,” he said. “I am going to show you a different Mahdi there.”
The lithe moves and athletic physique that make him so dangerous on the fighting circuit, combined with his good looks, also make him dangerous with the ladies. Asked if he has a girl friend he joked, “About a thousand!” Then he quickly corrected himself. “I don’t break hearts!” he insisted. “If anyone likes me - send me a message!”
When not engaged in the gruelling training programme of the Iranian taekwondo athletes, he enjoys volleyball and travel. Taekwondo has provided a passport to the world. Spain has been his favorite destination thus far. He also likes cars. He drives a Hyundai, but hopes to own a Maserati. Is that feasible on his current salary as an athlete? “No!” he says - but it may be, “… in a few years, when I have managed to make money out of my titles.”
As a child, he hated taekwondo. Now as a man, he finds it compelling. “Although I was forced to start taekwondo from a young age, as I got older, I learned more about the art,” he said. “The more it became a profession for me, the more I found it interesting.”
Even so, “The Terminator” may hang up his dobok after the 2016 Games.
“I plan to get a gold in the Olympics – I will deliver my best-ever performance! - and then I am not sure if I want to carry on,” he said. “I am under a lot of pressure and stress which affects my personal life. I want to have some sort of calm.”
After what happened in Manchester, there will no more pressure from his taekwondo-centric family.
“My family is very proud and happy as I am successful, but they care about my well-being more than my achievements in taekwondo,” he said. “Since I got injured, they have given up on forcing me to do taekwondo after Rio.”