TOKYO – In the sandy alleys of Niamey, the capital of one of the poorest nations in the world, Niger, they spin kick. In the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, overflowing with Syrians who fled the civil war, they perform with the scissors. And in the slums of Thailand, where martial arts offer a tempting way out of poverty, they deliver the heel-ax kick that makes taekwondo the most explosive martial art.
Of all the Olympic events, Taekwondo is perhaps the most generous for the wealth of nations that exist on the fringes of international sport. Since becoming an Olympic medal sport in 2000, Korean martial arts has managed to bring more than a dozen medals to countries that have relatively few athletes in the Olympics and until recently had even fewer hopes of victory.
Ivory Coast and Jordan won their first Olympic gold medals in taekwondo, as did Taiwan. Niger, Vietnam and Gabon won their first silver. Afghanistan’s only Olympic medal, a bronze medal, also came from it.
In Tokyo, athletes from 61 nations and three members of the Refugee Olympic Team compete in Taekwondo, a remarkable variety for a sport that was played in just five games. More than a dozen standard-bearers of the Olympic teams in Tokyo are Taekwondo fighters, which underlines the importance of the sport for smaller sporting nations.
Taekwondo may not enjoy the high profile or mass audience of sports such as gymnastics or boxing. But the self-defense discipline is practiced by tens of millions of people, particularly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Its popularity is due in part to the fact that it does not require expensive equipment or extensive fields.
“For a poor country like Niger, this sport is the best,” said Issaka Ide, president of the Niger Olympic Committee, who also served as chairman of the national Taekwondo federation. “Although the sport comes from Korea, we made it ours because it is very easy to practice without a lot of equipment.”
Taekwondo was South Korea’s first successful cultural export, before K-pop, before Korean television dramas, and before kimchi rice. The sport did not develop into a coherent discipline until the 1950s, when Koreans fused elements of various martial arts to create “the path of the foot and the hand,” as Taekwondo means in Korean.
During the Vietnam War, South Korean soldiers taught their Western counterparts Taekwondo. The American action star Chuck Norris, stationed at an Air Force base in South Korea, has also dedicated himself to the sport.
When Korean coaches started promoting the sport overseas, they called it “Korean Karate,” referring to the more popular Japanese sport. But Taekwondo quickly caught on, and the main government association, World Taekwondo, now has 210 member nations plus one refugee representative.
For generations who grew up watching the cinematic exploits of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, taekwondo became the Olympic sport that had the closest electrical power to kung fu movies. Taekwondo made its debut as an Olympic demonstration sport at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul and became an official medal sport 12 years later, even if its abstruse points system left plenty of room for rumors of match-fixing and corruption in the lower echelons. (The reputation of the sport in the United States has also been tarnished by a sexual abuse scandal.)
Panipak Wongpattanakit, a fighter in the women’s 49-kilogram class, won Thailand’s first taekwondo gold in Tokyo on Saturday after winning bronze in Rio in 2016. Her father, Sirichai Wongpattanakit, a swim coach, said he usually goes to all fights, but the coronavirus pandemic prevented him from going to Tokyo.
Panipak – confusingly nicknamed “tennis” while her brother is known as “baseball” and her sister as “bowling” – excelled in many sports, but taekwondo, with its amalgamation of mercury kicks and steely self-discipline, was the one who got stuck.
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“I’m thrilled that she made her country proud,” said Sirichai.
For their gold, Panipak will earn about $ 365,000 from the Thai government, a transformative amount of money in a country where debt is skyrocketing and incomes are falling.
For every medal won in Taekwondo, the multiplier effect is greatest in countries where Olympic glory is rare. In the three months after Ahmad Abughaush, a fighter in the men’s 68-pound category, won Jordan’s first Olympic medal – a gold medal – in Rio, 50,000 taekwondo suits were sold in the country, said Nasser Majali, secretary-general of the Jordan Olympic Committee.
“It was a taekwondo explosion,” said Majali. “A wonderful explosion.”
19-year-old Ulugbek Rashitov from Uzbekistan won gold in the men’s 68 kilogram class in Tokyo on Sunday. Three years earlier, a university in the capital Tashkent had set up an entire academic department for Taekwondo.
“Uzbekistan never had an Olympic champion in this sport,” said Rashitov, a university student. “It is like a dream.”
The competition on Sunday also brought a bronze medal in the 57 kg class of women to Taiwan, which is competing under the name Chinese Taipei due to objections from China. The island won its first gold medals in Athens in 2004 when a man and a woman received top honors in taekwondo.
“We have had breakthroughs in the past few years, but other countries have made it too,” said Chang Shao-hsi, Taiwan’s sports director.
The international guardians of Taekwondo, who are still dominated by a clique of Koreans, have tried to arouse interest in the sport beyond national borders. In 2015, World Taekwondo brought Taekwondo to refugee camps, where any dusty spot between the tents can be turned into a Taekwondo room. Today Taekwondo fighters are trained in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, Rwanda and Djibouti.
“Taekwondo is a martial art, but we wanted to make a peaceful contribution to the Olympic movement,” said Choue Chungwon, the Korean president of World Taekwondo.
Tokyo has three taekwondo fighters who are part of the Refugee Olympic Team, a team that debuted in 2016 to provide a safe space to compete for a people torn by war and political conflict.
At the weekend, three people who officially came out of nowhere, buckled their Taekwondo helmets and put on their mouthguards. One of them was Kimia Alizadeh, an Iran-born fighter who became the first woman to win a medal for her homeland in 2016. She was aiming for another medal in the 57 kilogram class. But this time Alizadeh ran as a refugee.
She fled Iran last year and criticized the country for its treatment of women. In her first bout on Sunday without a headscarf, Alizadeh defeated an Iranian who was being looked after by her former coach. She then dispatched a two-time Olympic champion from Great Britain and a Chinese fighter who was a favorite for the gold.
With the likely expectation that Alizadeh might win the very first medal for the International Refugee Team, Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, traveled to the distant location where the Taekwondo Games were held. Bach sat one seat away from Choue of World Taekwondo – to ensure social distancing – and brought unexpected klieg lights into a sport that is usually overshadowed by the Olympics.
Then Alizadeh lost to a Turkish fighter. Bach quietly disappeared from the arena. Taekwondo returned to its place of relative darkness. A Chinese fighter won a medal, then an American won gold, followed by Rashitov from Uzbekistan.
“New countries pick up medals every day,” said Choue. “There are so many countries.”
Muktita Suhartono contributed the coverage from Bangkok and Amy Chang Chien from Taipei, Taiwan.