Nick Butler

It may hold the rather dubious honour of having American nu metal act Limp Bizkit and English veteran Sting as the best known musicians to have played within its walls, but the 7,500 capacity Traktor Ice Arena in Chelyabinsk has this week provided another strong advert for Russia’s reputation as an efficient host of major sporting events.

Like last year’s World Judo Championships, the World Taekwondo extravaganza closing today has been well-organised, taking place in a good atmosphere and with relatively low numbers of empty seats, particularly for medal matches.

Perhaps the only thing missing was a Russian gold medal, although that is hardly the organisers' fault and there was certainly enough to justify World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) President Chungwon Choue’s claim this event was the “best ever”.

My first real memory of taekwondo came at Beijing 2008 when Britain’s Sarah Stevenson was scandalously not awarded two points for a clear headkick with 10 seconds remaining of her quarter-final bout with China’s Chen Zhong. Following lengthy protests, and despite disbelieving boos from the partisan home crowd, the result was rightly overturned and Stevenson went on to win the bronze medal before reciting the athletes’ oath at the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Games four years later.

With that incident one of many judging failures in Beijing, the sport was thought to be in severe danger of being kicked out of the Olympic programme - pardon the pun - if immediate changes were not made.

But four years later, with a video technology system having been introduced, the Games in London passed with barely a hitch, and when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) came to choose a sport to be omitted in 2013, it was wrestling, rather than taekwondo, which received the red card due to its comparative failure to modernise, (although as it turned out the sport was duly returned to the programme just months later following a vote at the IOC Session in Buenos Aires).

Taekwondo has come a long way since the judging scandals that scarred the likes of Sarah Stevenson at Beijing 2008 ©Getty Images
Taekwondo has improved since the judging scandals that scarred the likes of Sarah Stevenson at Beijing 2008 ©Getty Images

Although a lot of his speech at the WTF General Assembly was littered with the kind of general compliments which could be attributed to virtually any sport, there was no doubt that IOC sports director Kit McConnell was impressed by the sport’s progress, and its Olympic status appears secure for the foreseeable future.

Video technology, in the form of the Daedo Protective Scoring System (PSS) seen here this week, is by no means perfect, a point I will return to, but it has made a positive difference to taekwondo, as similar systems have in tennis and cricket and are, belatedly, beginning to in football. It adds drama and suspense, particularly when an outcome of a match depends on it. Most importantly it ensures accuracy, and, most of the time, eradicates the freak judging which clouded action in Beijing and before.

There are other assets the sport enjoys. Although Asia has been more dominant that expected this week, winning all but five of the 14 finals, there has been a strong distribution of medals, with 30 featuring on the medals table spanning five different continents. There are few other sports where athletes from Gabon, Ivory Coast, Cuba and Uzbekistan could claim the four podium positions, for example, as we saw last night in the men’s heavyweight division.

And, as a novice to watching the sport, I can testify that, when the action is explosive there a few sports more exciting.

The men’s under 68 kilograms final pitting Turkey’s Servet Tazegül - considered a “legend” in the sport by virtually everyone you speak to, with even President Choue describing him as his “favourite” fighter - against top seeded Russian, Alexey Denisenko, was spellbinding stuff, two great warriors going at it hammer and tongs in a devastating blur of spinning kicks, thrusts, parries and jousts. 

Ivory Coast’s Firmin Zokou, agonisingly pipped for gold in that heavyweight final last night, was similarly showman-like, as was Belgium's final night victor Jaoud Achab.

Turkey's Servet Tazegul (left) is one so called
Turkey's Servet Tazegul (left) is one so called "legend" who is a great advert for the sport ©WTF

But a big challenge for the sport is the lack of others who use similar styles.

No doubt partly because of the ultra-sensitive electronic sensors, there has been a tendency towards accuracy over explosive aggression. With the judges only required to rule on kicks to the face, or whether one has been performed with a spin, meaning extra points, there is less of a need to “convince” the judges you have scored a winning shot through extra power and technique.

Instead, there is a frustrating tendency for players to lead with their front foot and essentially “tap” rather than strike an opponent to score. Following the Mayweather-Pacquiao boxing super-fight a fortnight ago, I wrote about the prevalence of defensive techniques in sport today, and taekwondo is a perfect example.

Some teams, like Iran, have mastered these defensive arts more than most, and it is they who have tended to be most dominant.

Officials and commentators seem fairly united in a belief that this is bad for the sport, reducing the spectacle and appeal, as well as the actual fighting skills of the players. You cannot blame athletes or coaches for this, of course, they are only maximising their chances of victory, but rule changes seem the best way to rectify this.

Britain’s freshly crowned world champion Bianca Walkden admitted the conservative nature of modern styles is problematic but, in a typically pragmatic vein, claimed this is not a concern for her. “At the end of the day, sometimes you have to fight like that to win a gold medal,” she told insidethegames. “Everyone needs a balance, with this game the way it is.”

Turkey’s Tazegül was blunter. “The reason I started taekwondo was because of Jackie Chan movies with spinning kicks,” he said. [In the current style] you have to make a strong front leg, but in my style you have to be really strong on both legs, to be in really good conditions.

“This is real taekwondo - the taekwondo that I love!”

Bianca Walken is a new star of the sport who won through a blend of attacking and defensive qualities ©WTF
Bianca Walken is a new star of the sport who won through a blend of attacking and defensive qualities ©WTF

The WTF has already introduced several measures to help raise excitement levels. Octagonal mats, three-points for a spinning kick to the body, and sensors within the headgear are all being used for the first time at a World Championships.

But he admits more needs to be done.

“Many coaches and many international officials have advised me to take out the sensor in the bottom pads,” President Choue told insidethegames, which would stop players scoring through light touches from the side rather than the top of the foot.

This could happen in time for next year's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, he revealed, although he admitted there may not be enough time to do this. Next month’s European Games in Baku will be a good opportunity for further discussions, it was added.

Another problem which Choue admits has to “be discussed” straight after the Championship by a special Ad-hoc Committee is the failure of the electronic system during yesterday’s under 57kg quarter-final, which seemingly meant Britain’s Olympic champion Jade Jones did not score with a kick to the face because the system had malfunctioned, so did not register the kick.

Unlike at the Olympics, preliminary action at the World Championships has taken place on five parallel mats, meaning the extra background noise could be disrupting the system more than at other events, Choue suggested as a possible explanation as to why this had happened.

He is also keen urging work to be done to make the review system quicker so it does less to disrupt the flow of a match, with delays of five or six minutes having been seen on occasions this week.

But Choue is of no doubt that the situation now is “far, far better” than in Beijing and beforehand.

South Korea, winner of four gold medals here so far, including one for under 54kg prodigy Kim Tae-hun, will host the next World Championships in Muju in 2017 ©WTF
South Korea, winner of four gold medals here so far, including one for under 54kg prodigy Kim Tae-hun, will host the next World Championships in Muju in 2017 ©WTF

One other area where I think progress could be made regards the profile of the athletes themselves. There are clearly some great stories in taekwondo: like Walkden for example, who fought back from two career threatening cruciate ligament injuries and the disappointment of not being selected for a home Olympics to win a surprise gold medal here.

But, in comparison with some other sports, I feel they are perhaps not marketed as well as some, and there is potential for more visibility and consequent attractiveness for commercial sponsors. A greater social media presence here this week, for example, with a better-publicised and event-specific hashtag, would have been one way.

A greater profile would in turn help encourage more countries to bid for major events, with the likes of Russia, South Korea, Mexico, Turkey and Azerbaijan dominating the bidding stakes. It is a problem which doesn't seem necessary considering how comparatively straightforward it is to put on a taekwondo event in comparison with some others.

But these are teething problems more than anything else, and like in the past, you feel the sport will be more than capable of continuing its evolution.

Rio 2016 should provide a slightly different atmosphere to Chelyabinsk but another strong performance there will consolidate taekwondo further as a core global and Olympic sport.