Sport has never been bigger business or a more prominent strand in the fabric of human affairs. At the same time, millions of people have been left trapped leading lives of grinding poverty, chronic insecurity or worse by the unpredictable economic and political convulsions that mark our times.
So it is hardly surprising that sports leaders find themselves under more and more pressure nowadays to put something back. To contribute more than an entertaining spectacle to a wider society whose support enables athletes, entourage members and officials to lead enviably comfortable, purposeful lives.
It is hard to conceive of a simpler, more worthwhile way of accomplishing this than by sending groups of people from your sport into refugee camps, those purgatories on earth that fringe the trouble-spots of our planet, to try to connect with the kids condemned to idle away their childhood years in the most insecure circumstances imaginable.
This is what Chungwon Choue, President of the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) is now trying to arrange.
As we talk on the verandah of a Malaysian luxury hotel, disturbed only from time to time by the ministrations of the local mosquitoes, Choue discloses that a body called the Taekwondo Humanitarian Foundation is close to being set up.
“Most probably it will be launched within the next month,” he says. “We should have support to send our teams to refugee camps to teach not just taekwondo - that is just one part - but to teach young kids, What is Olympism? What is world peace? And also how to live as a good world citizen.” The chairman of WTF’s Ethics Committee is, Choue says, already working on a curriculum.
The WTF President traces the origins of the idea back to a recent conversation with the vice-president of the Jordanian Taekwondo Association. “He told me, ‘President, we have two million Syrian refugees in Jordan. The young kids are there doing nothing.’”
Choue says he has discussed the idea with other countries - Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, United Arab Emirates, Moldova - and they have agreed in principle to “make contributions in a certain way”.
Moldova? Isn’t that a very poor country itself, I pipe up. “Yes, but the Moldova taekwondo President himself is very rich.”
If this pilot phase is a success, Choue muses, “I will maybe discuss with some other Olympic sports federations…
“For Olympic sports,” he continues, “there must be a certain way to contribute to human society. Not only teaching or exercising their sports, but also I do believe all Olympic sports should have a responsibility to contribute to human society.
“Now is the time to create these kinds of humanitarian foundations…I am very proud that the World Taekwondo Federation is the pioneer.”
With figures from UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, putting the number of refugees worldwide at almost 20 million, and the number of forcibly displaced people at nearly 60 million, the need for such initiatives is beyond dispute.
Choue, 67, who is in his fourth term now as WTF President having taken up the post in 2004, already has one successful sports humanitarian intervention to his credit in the shape of the Taekwondo Peace Corps project, active since 2008.
“Since then, every summer and winter break, we dispatch taekwondo peace corps teams to many different countries,” he says. “Until now to over 100 countries and around 1,300 taekwondo masters have been involved. It is very successful.”
In an ideal world, Choue would like to see this sport-specific initiative broadened out into an all-embracing Sport Peace Corps.
He last publicly broached this subject in Turkmenistan in April, calling on the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the United Nations (UN) and international sports federations (IFs) to get behind a concept that could “bring hope and inspire people from the most deprived countries and communities”.
Two weeks later, on the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, he had a private meeting on the subject in New York with UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean native. After the meeting, Choue spoke of sport’s “unique power to create a more peaceful future” and said it was his hope that “soon, with the support of the UN, the IOC and all the IFs, we will be able to launch the Sport Peace Corps to harness this immense power and bring hope and harmony to some of the world’s most deprived countries and communities”.
Like other martial arts, taekwondo is as much a way of life as a sport. This perhaps helps to explain why, under Choue, it has sought to take such an active role in getting to grips with wider problems.
The WTF President has reason to think that the sport’s philosophical underpinning has also helped to fuel its global expansion, to the point where the governing body has 206 national members and there are an estimated 70-80 million taekwondo practitioners.
Explaining why he thinks China is probably the country with the most people who practice taekwondo, Choue tells me that two provinces, Hunan and Sichuan, have made the sport a compulsory subject in elementary schools. “They have 100 million population,” he calculates. “Normally eight to nine percent are elementary school-kids; that means eight to nine million taekwondo practitioners.”
Why would those two provinces have done such a thing, I ask.
It is plainly a question that interested Choue too. “I asked them,” he tells me. “You have your own martial arts sports like wushu and kung fu. Why taekwondo?
“One of the professors from Beijing University, a very close friend of mine, said, ‘Well, taekwondo is different: it’s a contact sport, a martial arts sport, but it has a philosophy. They teach not only how to punch and how to kick. They also teach how to behave yourself. Respect your elderly people. Be loyal to your own nation.”
He bridles when I suggest that taekwondo still seems to me a very Korea-rooted sport. “You cannot say that any more,” he retorts. “It used to be a Korean-dominated sport, that’s for sure. But the results of the London Olympic Games…
“Eight gold medals went to eight different countries and five are in Europe. In Asia only Korea and China got golds. Argentina got one gold.”
What about at grass-roots level though?
Choue reels off a list of countries with large taekwondo-practising contingents: China – more than 20 million; the United States – “they say about five million”; Mexico – “they are saying two million”; Iran – “they say 2.5 million”; “in Europe I think Turkey is the largest”.
He recalls a trip last November to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. “I was really astonished that I heard they had more than 25,000 taekwondo practitioners all over the country. I was really surprised. You can easily see many young kids wearing a taekwondo uniform on the street. I was really surprised to see the popularity of our sport in Bhutan.”
With the IOC seemingly injecting more flexibility into the way different sports and events are selected for the Olympic Games, does Choue now think taekwondo’s place on the sports programme is secure?
“Well, we will do our best to change,” Choue replies diplomatically. “No-one can say that we are safe - like in 2013 with wrestling, nobody expected wrestling to be removed…We have to keep upgrading our sports.”
What, I ask, will I notice new at Rio next year compared with London 2012?
“Firstly you will see the taekwondo competition area,” he says. “In London it was an eight metre square. But we have cut down the four corners into an octagon shape.”
Asked for the reasons behind this change, Choue explains that it results in a change in the style of the competition. “With a square you are going forward and backwards and left and right.” The angled corners will encourage more diagonal moves.
Furthermore, “I already announced to our referees’ chairman, there should be half and half referees: half female referees, half male. That will be the first time we have gender equality at the Olympics, though we already did it in the Youth Olympics last year.” In London, he says, about one-third of taekwondo referees were women.
Once Rio has been negotiated, Choue suggests that the pace of change could step up. “The kicking and punching style should be changed; the points system will be changed,” he says. After Rio, “we are thinking about changing many things”.
There may also be more new competitions, including the possible introduction of professional taekwondo championships.
In his 12th year in charge, Choue is plainly determined to keep driving the sport forward. One wonders how different it might look by the time of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics five years from now.