Nick Butler

Most medal winners at this weekend’s World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) Grand Prix Finals were naturally preoccupied with end of season celebrations following their competitions, or with watching their team-mates while finding somewhere to deposit the large sombreros awarded as part of the podium ceremony.

I was somewhat surprised, therefore, to spot China’s under 49 kilograms champion Wu Jingyu handing out a flyer covered with pictures of her alongside the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President, Thomas Bach, the morning after her victory.

A slightly different sort of athlete, it was clear.

The diminutive 28-year-old from Jiangxi Province has a fascinating backstory. As a child she played a young taekwondo fan who dreams of becoming an Olympic champion in a Chinese film. Fast forward a few years and she has effectively lived out this plot, winning gold at her home Games in Beijing before repeating the feat four years later in London.

Standing just five foot six inches tall, she may not appear particularly threatening, but she out-thought and out-fought the rest of the field with consummate ease to win again here on Saturday (December 7) and is heavily favoured to secure an Olympic treble next summer in Rio de Janeiro.

Yet her ambitions are far broader than that. Wu, who introduced herself via her English name, Joy, wrote a book last year about her journey to the top level. Published in Mandarin, the title translates as “Olympic Love”, and other champions including hurdler Liu Xiang, boxer Zou Shiming and speed skater turned IOC member Yang Yang also recounted their stories in what she describes as an attempt to inspire Chinese youngsters to emulate them.

She spoke alongside her English speaking husband, Hou Kun, or Justin, who runs a small company promoting the heritage of the Olympic Games. He was present in Kuala Lumpur for July’s IOC Session in which Beijing was awarded the 2022 Olympics and Paralympics, helping with an exhibition showcasing the history of the Winter Games.

Wu Jingyu pictured with IOC President Thomas Bach ©Wu Jingyu
Wu Jingyu pictured with IOC President Thomas Bach ©Wu Jingyu

The couple first met Bach at the opening of the Juan Antonio Samaranch Memorial Museum in Tianjin before his election as President in 2013. They have since stayed in touch and met again during the 2014 Summer Youth Olympics in Nanjing, where Wu helped carry the Torch into the stadium during the Opening Ceremony, and at August’s World Athletics Championships in Beijing. Bach wrote the forward for Olympic Love and sent them a congratulatory message after their marriage last year.

The Montreal 1976 foil fencing champion was awarded an honorary 10th Dan Black Belt by WTF President Chungwon Choue in August, so is somewhat ironically higher ranked than third Dan Wu, something the German wryly attributed to his "hard work and dedication".

Unsurprisingly however, the IOCs Agenda 2020 reform process formed part of their discussions. I was expecting Wu to gush positively about how successful it had been, but she spoke only neutrally, making constructive points about further plans.

Her most interesting idea concerns the Olympic TV Channel, where she believes there should be regular profiles of Olympic champions and their journeys to the top in order to inspire others. This should include those from all over the world, she adds, because different cultures have different associations with the Games.

Wu herself was recommended by a coach to take up taekwondo at a special sports school aged 12 due to her speed and agility, a recruitment process which would not work as well in some other countries. But she reports similar apathy about the Olympics in China as is elsewhere.

“Young people today don’t want to play sport,” she admits. “They want to go to parties and play computer games.”

Better education in the traditions of the Olympics would be another way to alleviate this problem, she believes.

Wu Jingyu (picture, in red, at the Manchester Grand Prix) is one of the most dominant fighters in the sport ©Getty Images
Wu Jingyu, pictured, in red, at the Manchester Grand Prix, is one of the most dominant fighters in the sport ©Getty Images

Wu is hoping to take time out after Rio to start a family, but may consider returning for a fourth Games thereafter. A member of the Chinese Olympic Committee’s Executive Board, she admits she would love to be an IOC member one day, although this is not likely anytime soon given that Yang Yang still has three years to serve as China's Athletes’ Commission representative. She is keen to be involved in any way possible, however, and sees the Culture and Olympic Heritage Commission as one body she could potentially join. Improving her English is another priority.

Two things struck me from our conversation. Firstly, taekwondo and other sports must do more to promote their athletes. “Athlete-centered Games” may be one of the most trotted-out clichés in sport - trailing behind only “zero tolerance on doping” - but clearly they are not always the priority.

Taekwondo has so many personalities like Wu, and the dynamic Turk, Servet Tazegul, for instance. With the possible exception of Britain’s Jade Jones, who found fame as a result of her home victory as a teenager at London 2012, relatively little is made of these stars. A stronger social media campaign and attracting well-known sponsors may be ways for the WTF to do this.

Wu Jiangyu celebrates her first Olympic gold medal at Beijing 2008 ©AFP/Getty Images
Wu Jiangyu celebrates her first Olympic gold medal at Beijing 2008 ©AFP/Getty Images

My second observation concerns Bach himself. We have given him and the IOC a bit of a rough ride in these columns in recent weeks as they tread water despairingly to react to the latest tidal wave of doping and corruption scandals. Wu’s experience, however, reminds us of his warmth and personality which also shines through whenever you meet him.

“He is a fellow Olympic champion,” she says. “And he understands the importance of publicising Olympic champions and using them to inspire others.”

Why then, I thought to myself, is so little made of this work. As we pointed out last week, press release after press release comes out proclaiming how Bach has met another world leader, but his meeting with Wu during August’s World Athletics Championships was relegated to one line at the bottom of a weekly newsletter.

They have enjoyed success in promoting the Olympic concept in countries like China. The real challenge for Bach and others now, however, is to convince more questionable members of the public in Western nations like his own Germany following Hamburg’s rejection of a 2024 Olympic bid in last month’s referendum.

Greater use of athlete models like Wu in a bottom-up approach is surely as good a way to achieve this than meeting with politicians in a top-down effort.