Taekwondo>History>Chapter 21: Sport taekwondo

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Chapter 21: Sport taekwondo


We all know taekwondo is a Korean martial art, but it is also a sport. The history of the formation of taekwondo as a martial art has been discussed; however, what about its development as a sport.

In the early 1970s, new patterns and sport fighting tactics were developed in Korea. These techniques were designed to take advantage of a fighter's maximum efficiency while maintaining his or her speed and power. Korea's World Taekwondo Federation developed new Taeguk patterns to replace the older palgue patterns still taught extensively in the United States. The traditional hyung patterns of the more traditional International Taekwondo Federation are still used. Running kicks replaced the old one punch, one kick techniques. Traditionalists say the new stances are too high and that the kicks lack power, while sport practitioners say the old ways are too slow.

Some taekwondo organizations strictly adhere to traditional taekwondo methods while others adhere to the sport methods. In some organizations, the two types have blended. The following investigates how taekwondo sparring has evolved. To discuss this aspect of taekwondo development, we first need to look to France.

Pierre de Coubertin

For most the 18th and 19th centuries, France was the most powerful nation in Europe. However, it lost practically every military engagement. Even in wars with England, a formidable naval power but with a small army, the English armies usually won.

Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat, noticed that French military leaders argued among themselves more than they did in preparing for battle. France was not preparing its leaders for leadership. To find out why, he studied various national characteristics, concentrating on the educational system.

De Coubertin noticed that sports played a different role in English education than they did in France. In France, individuals and teams played "games," but this was considered a lower-class activity and was looked down upon by the aristocracy. Athletic activities of the aristocracy were highly individualized, such as fencing, and sports were not part of their formal education. While in British aristocracy, sports, both individual and team, were an integral part of their education.

British leaders could be just as quarrelsome as their French counterparts could, but generally, they seemed to get along with each other, especially in times of crisis. De Coubertin noticed that the British had a fundamental sense of fairness, whether dealing with each other or with other nations. He noted the use of sporting terms in British conversation, such as a certain behavior not being "cricket." When a sport was played "by the rules," it was easy for the losers to offer congratulations to the winners, and the winners took the losers to the local pub.

From his observations, de Coubertin developed the theory that sports could be an important educational tool for developing certain types of behavior. Noticing that sports were a form of controlled violence, he conjectured that sports played on an international level could replace political and military rivalries, and that, like the British, the participants could remain friends off the playing fields. At that time, about the only way people met each other internationally was during war. De Coubertin saw sports as a way for people from different nations to get to know each other in the context of the friendly rivalry of sport competition.

Searching for a way to promote this concept, he looked to a revival the ancient Olympic Games as a highly visible historic event that could promote cooperation between nations. After convincing enough national leaders to support the idea, the first modern Olympics was held in Athens in 1896; it was a great success.


During this same time, Japan was just coming out of 300 years of closed feudalism and Jigero Kano was one of a group of young intellectuals who were trying to bring Japan into the modern era. Kano especially admired England and became fluent in English. He studied British philosophy, economics, politics, and the British sport culture. As a philosophy, sport has no counterpart in Eastern cultures; the word simply does not exist, so they had to adopt the Western word, "sport."

Kano was an avid martial artist, but the Japanese martial arts were unsatisfying. He observed that the 300 years of peace under the military dictatorship of the Shoguns had robbed the martial arts of their vitality. Most of the martial arts seemed to be more concerned with the form of movement, rather than the realistic usefulness of the movement. When movements were applied realistically, they tended to promote injuries, so no one really practiced realistic movements. The arts preserved technical skills that had little practical usefulness under the guise that they were good for self-improvement.

Kano believed that martial arts training should be "full-contact," to realistically test the techniques and the performer of the techniques. He believed that the training should be in a free-movement context so the performer would have to adapt to a wide variety of circumstances. Ultimately, Kano developed randori (free sparring). Kano was a jujitsu practitioner and knew of its dangerous training techniques. Kano used his jujitsu training to develop an entire curriculum of techniques that permitted full power application, but with limitations that reduced the risk of injury. Since these modified techniques were not as "deadly" as their predecessors were, practitioners could develop much greater speed and power in their application. To counter this, Kano developed new break-fall techniques skills to absorb the greater power and speed of the new throwing techniques. Sport techniques were substituted for older combat techniques. To practice judo, you had to execute the techniques in a proper manner, without harming the opponent, while still developing high-level technical skills. A competition format, shiai, was developed from the randori concept. This idea of free movement and full power in martial art practice was revolutionary.

In the late 1800's in Japan, challenges and fighting were commonplace. The new judo often had to defend its reputation against the older jujitsu. The government, in an attempt to determine the best training for its police and military, sponsored many of these contests. Judo won most of these encounters, regardless of the rules of engagement, simply because its method of training was so superior to the older styles. The sport emphasis on speed and power overwhelmed any technical inferiority of the actual techniques. The lesson was that the method of training was more important than the technique itself. As a result, jujitsu virtually disappeared in Japan and it was replaced by judo.

Kano was impressed by de Coubertin's modern Olympic movement and, while Judo took several decades to spread around the world and become a universal sport, Kano developed it with the idea of promoting the same "universal humanity" that de Coubertin was promoting through the modern Olympic Games. Kano later became a member of the International Olympic Committee in 1906 and remained there until his death in 1938.


Gichin Funakoshi brought shotokan karate to Japan from Okinawa in 1922 as an alternative to judo. It emphasized kicking and punching, rather than the grappling, throwing, choking, and joint locking of Judo.

Funakoshi believed that karate techniques were so powerful that they could not be practiced in a freestyle situation (modern protective sparring equipment was not yet available). His motto was "one punch, one kill; one kick, one kill." He believed that free-sparring would dilute karate techniques into light-contact or no-contact sparring, which was contrary to a true martial art. Funakoshi even modified shotokan, which had emphasized short fighting stances, into long, powerful stances for the delivery of powerful techniques, believing the older, flexible fighting stances diminished the power of the single fatal technique.

One of Funakoshi's students, Masatoshi Nakayama also studied judo. He used to return from judo classes, where he had great fun with the judo randori, and ask Funakoshi if a type of randori sparring could be developed for karate. Funakoshi refused, believing it would degrade the power of karate because it could not be practiced full-contact.

After Funakoshi died in the 1950's, Nakayama became head of shotokan and began developing a competition style of sparring (protective sparring equipment was becoming more available). Shotokan developed a "light-contact" style in which action was stopped by a referee at the possible scoring of a point and points were awarded by colored flags raised by corner judges. This system developed the speed and reflexive response that Kano's randori had shown to be so important for realistic martial arts training. It became a very popular competition style in karate, as well as for early forms of taekwondo, and it remains popular today. The power of karate techniques continued to be developed and demonstrated through breaking techniques.


Sport taekwondo creates a dilemma. In traditional taekwondo, we are taught that taekwondo is a defensive martial art, used only after being first attacked. In traditional “flag” or “point” sparring, the one who attacks and scores first gets the point.  In point sparring, when a point is scored, the match stops and any block or counter by the defender is ignored. An initial aggressive, but weak, technique scores, while a more powerful defensive technique is ignored. We are taught that taekwondo is for defense, but sport sparring rewards aggression; the one who attacks the most has the advantage. The competition aspect of taekwondo is philosophically incompatible with taekwondo's basic principles. This creates a quandary. Is sport taekwondo competition a training tool, or is it something separate from the traditional practice of taekwondo? This question is still being argued today.

You cannot train for power by constantly training not to use power. You cannot train to broad jump 15 feet if you are constantly limiting yourself to 5 feet jumps. In class sessions, taekwondo students train to strike with full-power, using heavy bags, targets, and body shields. We are told that devastating power is the result of using proper technique.  Then, when we free-spar, we must use control and techniques that do not harm the opponent. This poses a quandary for us. Kano's research over a century ago proved that this does not work in a martial art.

In Korea, in the early 1960's, a few instructors began experimenting with a more full-contact form of free-sparring using protective equipment that included a chest protector. They wanted to prevent unduly "aggressive" and even unrealistic approaches to sparring, while also permitting the opponent to use defensive techniques. They found that Kano's idea of continuous action was the only solution, and since this precluded the intermittent action of point scoring, they turned to using paper scoring, such as used in amateur boxing. The result of this experimentation was the development of continuous action, full-contact sparring. However, it was not accepted by all masters. The founders of the World Taekwondo Federation participated in its development and accepted it but, among others, General Choi Hong Hi, founder of the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF), opposed it. Even after Choi's death in 2002, the ITF still opposes it.

Under this new system, defensive techniques could now be fully scored. In point sparring, a quick, aggressive fighter can drop his or her guard and score on a weak technique and the action is stopped, even though the opponent immediately counterattacked with two or three powerful techniques to the attacker’s unguarded areas. This is what I call the “fastest gun” fighting strategy. The one that “draws and fires” the quickest scores the point, even though the opponent had numerous “shots” that hit their target after the scoring point. With continuous sparring, attacking strategies must account for counterattacks, thus it is believed that continuous sparring promotes more realistic sparring than does point sparring.

Whereas point sparring is philosophically and technically incompatible with the principle of "no first hand," continuous sparring considers itself the fundamental core of sport taekwondo training. Continuous sparring achieves the same goals that Kano and de Coubertin were seeking, using sport as a way to control human relationships. They both looked at the British sense of "fair play" as a governing factor in distinguishing the philosophical ideal of sport from simply organized game playing. Sport taekwondo accomplishes this.

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