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[personal profile] paxpinnae
The Summer Olympics are here, and while everyone else in the United States is huddled around the TV to watch the gymnasts defy gravity and Michael Phelps win another Fort Knox-equivalent of gold medals, I'll be clutching my laptop, watching the only event that really matters to me: taekwondo.

Olympic-style sparring is fast, intense, and highly skilled. It combines explosive movement with the strategy of chess. It's fun to do and fun to watch, and unless you yourself are a high-level competitor or lucky enough to live in a city that's hosting a tournament, the Olympics are the only time you can really see the world's best in action. Basically, I spend the Summer Olympics flailing incoherently over TKD. I invite you to join me.


Rules of WTF Sparring

Not that kind of WTF, mate.

Olympic-style sparring (also known as WTF-style sparring, because it's regulated by the World Taekwondo Federation) is conducted on an individual basis between two fighters of the same gender and weight class. Matches consist of three two-minute rounds, with a one-minute rest period between each round. The match is conducted by a center referee, a high-ranking black belt who usually competed for many years.1

Fighters are awarded points for kicks (and sometimes punches), depending on where the blow lands and what kind of blow it is. You're only allowed to strike with your foot or a closed hand. Open-hand strikes, kneeing, elbowing, and basically anything else are verboten. (Exception: sometimes fighters will block kicks with an open hand. This is legal, but not necessarily bright, because you can break your hand.)

A kick to the body or a punch to the body that knocks the other fighter down is worth one point. A spinning kick is worth two points. A kick to the head is worth three points. A PUNCH to the head is worth a gamjeong (-1 point) and everyone hating you. Points used to be awarded by three corner judges, but this Olympics is a little complicated. (More on that here.).

RE: Kicks: Taekwondo has a lot of different kinds of kicks, and they all have at least three or four different names, because martial artists suck at consistent terminology. However, you can get by watching sparring if you know four kicks:

  • Round kick, AKA roundhouse kick, AKA turning kick, as made famous by Chuck Norris: The staple kick of TKD, round kicks hit with the instep (the top of your foot). Notable variations include the narabang (360 round kick, where the fighter spins around before connecting) and the pattachagi (basically, a round kick while moving backwards). Round kicks can target either the body or the head.

  • Axe Kick: Where a fighter brings his/her leg up and tries to swing it down onto his/her opponent's head, much like an axe. My favorite counter to this is stepping into the kick so that your opponents leg gets stuck on your shoulder, then making them hop around like a one-legged chicken. This doesn't happen much at the Olympics, though. :(

  • Hook Kick: Usually seen in the spinning variation, hook kicks have a lot of circular motion and connect with the heel. Usually these target the head, and are very, very effective at making fighters not be so fighty anymore. Or so vertical. Or so conscious.

  • Cut Kick: Not actually a kick! Basically, if a fighter pulls their foot up like they're about to kick, then doesn't, or kicks an opponent's leg instead, it's a cut kick. There are lots of strategic reasons to throw a cut kick, but most of them are boring and technical; for now, just think of it as a cross between a fake and a block.

If you're interested in knowing more about kicks in TKD, awesome! Ask me in the comments.

If the fighters are tied at the end of the third round, the match goes into another two-minute sudden-death overtime round, where the first fighter to score wins. You can win a match in one of five ways:

  • Score: Whoever has the most points at the end of the match, wins.

  • Knockout: If a fighter is unable to continue after one minute of “injury time,” often but not always due to being kicked in the head really hard, his/her opponent wins.

  • Superiority/Referee Stop Contest: Very, very rarely, and almost never in international competition, a fight will be called due to superiority. This happens when one fighter is so clearly better than the other that the center referee believes that continuing the match would endanger the less-skilled fighter. How much better do they have to be? At US Collegiate Nationals in 2010, one of my teammates fought a match where he got kicked in the head six times in the first minute, and THAT match wasn't called. Instead, my coach made my teammate go for:

  • Withdrawal: One fighter bows out because she/he is unable or unwilling to continue. Again, not super-common.

  • Disqualification: Usually for fighting like a dirty bastard or hitting the ref, but people do get creative.

Match Time!

The rules of WTF-style sparring are simple, but the easiest way to understand how sparring actually works is to watch a match. I'm gonna use the 2004 mens' heavyweight gold medal match between Alexandros Nikolaidis, the giant of Greece (Chuang/Blue) and Possibly-Dr.2 Moon DaeSung (South Korea, Hong/Red) for an example, because a) it's exciting as hell b) I've watched it so many times I'm surprised the internet hasn't gone grey and crackly there (/VHS joke) and c) it's very, very short.

Okay, so the first 2:20 minutes of the video is taken up with preliminaries. You can skip this part: all that happens is the refs are introduced, the fighters are introduced, and everyone hugs his coach and asks Jesus/Buddha for some love.

First, everybody has to bow in. Nikolaidis and Moon bow into the ring, cross to bow to and shake hands with their opponent's coach, and then shake hands and bow in. All of this is considered an integral part of the match. You can say many things about Taekwondo, but it teaches you to be polite as a motherfucker.3

The center referee starts the match, and Nikolaidis goes off-the-line (right away, before either fighter has a chance to take stock of the situation) with a narabang, or 360 round kick. Moon steps back out of the way and checks a little bit, trying to fake Nikolaidis into another attack. Nikolaidis takes the bait, and comes forward with an axe kick. Moon, because he is used to being tiny, dodges under it and pattachaggis (throws a round kick while moving backwards), scoring the first point of the match. Unfortunately, this moves Moon into the yellow danger zone at the edge of the ring; if he steps out, he'll be penalized, so his movements are restricted. Nikolaidis takes advantage of this, moving to block Moon's escape. Moon dives into the clinch (where two fighters are body-to-body) to get out of Nikolaidis's range and avoid being kicked. The clinch is the short fighter's best friend, because when you're moving out of it, the shorter person hits his or her range first, and can get off a sho Refs can either let a clinch situation play out or step in to break it up; this ref opts to break it up and moves Nikoladis and Moon back to the center of the ring.

And here I'm going to stop to point out that this was all in the first ten seconds. What was that about hockey being a fast-paced sport?

Anyway, after the opening volley, both fighters take twenty seconds or so to bounce and feel each other out. Nikolaidis acts as the aggressor, using his advantage in reach to go after Moon with a sliding round kick, then a rear-leg axe kick. Moon tries to pattachaggi again, but it doesn't work this time. Nikolaidis uses his range and catches Moon on the shoulder. Nikolaidis doesn't score, but much like a schoolyard bully who holds off an attacking victim by holding them at arm's length, Moon can't get close enough to land his patta. Moon's driven out of the ring and earns himself a kyeungeo ( warning) from the ref, who ends the exchange and returns them both to the center.

Nikolaidis, because he's a slow learner, makes the first move again, stepping into Moon's range for... apparently no good reason. It's a really weird move, but Moon just shrugs and tries to kick the gift horse in the head. Nikolaidis blocks and counters with a wildly swinging round kick, which Moon neatly evades. Nikolaidis does a weird little pirouette, and I have to stop to giggle some. He recovers quickly, though, and launches into a series of checks and fakes that drive Moon backwards. Moon throws a few counters, but nothing connects, and Nikolaidis moves into the clinch, trying to get a crescent kick up and connected to Moon's head. This is almost amateurish; it's really hard for a tall fighter to land a head kick in the clinch, because they're just too close. He fails, and the ref breaks it up. Nikolaidis again does his series-of-checks thing —

AND THEN MOON BLOWS EVERYTHING OUT OF THE WATER WITH A BEAUTIFUL JUMPING BACK KICK TO THE HEAD THAT KNOCKS OUT NIKOLAIDIS AND WINS KOREA THE GOLD. It's been eight years since Athens and that kick is still one of my favorite moments in all Taekwondo. In college, the other short people and I used to watch this match like PORN, because it's such a great example of strategy against a taller opponent. Nikoladis controls the pace and movement of this entire match; almost all of Moon's movements are reactive. He just lets Nikolaidis tire himself out, and then, at the right moment, Moon takes control back. IT'S A BEAUTIFUL, BEAUTIFUL MATCH.


Okay, if I were a good person, I would go through and research the whole international field and diligently pick out the best fighters and assess their merits fairly based on matches I've watched and commentary I've read.

I'm not a good person. You get the Americans.


This year, the U.S. is sending four out of a possible four fighters to the Olympics! (There are eight divisions, but a country can qualify a maximum of four participants.) This is super exciting! The 2008 members of USA Fighting are:

Men's under 68kg: Terrence Jennings
Men's 68-80kg: Steven Lopez
Women's under 57kg: Diana Lopez
Women's 57-67kg: Paige McPherson


You may have noticed that two of those guys have the same last name. That's because they're siblings. It's impossible to tell the story of US Olympic taekwondo without talking about the Lopez family. Literally. There's been a Lopez, and often two or three, on every single US Olympic team since it became an official sport in 2000, and they have always medaled; the Lopezes have probably done more to help popularize taekwondo in America than anyone not named Chuck Norris. The three siblings still in active competition are Steven, Diana, and Mark; their older brother Jean is their coach.

The Lopezes are really, really interesting, because by taekwondo standards, they were raised by wolves. Their parents left Nicaragua for Houston after the fall of the Sandinista government and enrolled Jean in a “karate” school so he'd learn some discipline. The "karate" school turned out to be a dojang (Taekwondo school), and Steven, Diana, and Mark all copied Jean in their garage at home. Jean was really talented, so he started competing nationally despite coming from a no-name Texas dojang in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when American taekwondo outside of Los Angeles was pretty much a joke. His dad was his coach for a while, which basically amounted to trying to make sure Jean was fed and rested, because he knew nothing about taekwondo. Even when Jean moved onto the US National Team, I haven't been able to find any interviews that suggest that he had anything like a traditional master. He developed his fighting style more-or-less on his own.

The Lopezes have talked a lot about the harsh reception their fighting style (lots of cut kicks, lots of messy get-it-done kicks) has had in the TKD community. They've been criticized for having ugly, ungraceful taekwondo, even as they've been consistently successful with it. The Lopezes and I have some... philosophical differences when it comes to Taekwondo (fuck you, Steven Lopez, forms competitions are at least as valid as gymnastics), but their style has had an enormous impact on the international stage, and I have to respect that.

Steven Lopez

Weight Class: Middleweight
Age: 33.
Past Olympic History: Gold in 2000, Gold in 2004, and Bronze in 2008. Oh, and 5 World Championships. Steven Lopez is objectively one of the best fighters in the world.
Why He'll Make It: He's Steven Motherfucking Lopez. Three. Olympic. Medals. Five. World. Championships. He's been the leader in his weight class for over a decade.
Why He'll Choke: That part about him being the leader in his weight class for over a DECADE. He's really old! Martial artists have a longer shelf life than, say, female gymnasts (MILK has a longer shelf life than female gymnasts), but nearly three decades of abusing your bones and muscles builds up.
Fun Facts: Steven Lopez is 110% married to taekwondo and sees nothing wrong with their love. I'm not joking.

"Physically, I feel great. More than that, it's mental and spiritual. As people get older, they get married, have kids. I'm not married. I don't have kids, so I'm able to focus 100 percent on this."


Also, sometimes he teaches his bro Olympic Speed Skater Apolo Ohno how to do a front kick and they talk about their embarrassing middle school moments! (Steven and Ohno have a really dorky bromance based around Twitter and pissing off Koreans.[Taekwondo and speed-skating are the two sports South Korea is historically successful at in the Olympics.])


Oh, and he was one of People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People one year. I strongly suspect that the person in charge of that decision was kicked in the head by Steven just before making it, but hey, it could be legit.

I'm exaggerating slightly, of course. Steven took some time off from training this summer to be on a Fox dating show.

No, really. Apparently Irony Santa thought I was an extra-special good girl this year.
Social Media Stalking: He's on Twitter, but if you only follow one Lopez, make it Diana, and if you only follow two Lopezes, make it Diana and Mark. They are much better at Twitter than Steven.

Diana Lopez

Weight Class: Lightweight
Age: 28
Past Olympic History: Bronze in 2008.
Why She'll Make It: Diana is 5'10”, which is head and shoulders above most lightweights. (For comparison, I'm 5'3" and I was consistently one of the taller lightweights at the collegiate level.) She's also the only returning Olympian in her weight class.
Why She'll Choke: She hasn't won anything on the international level since her bronze in 2008. This could be because she's been going to college, but still, that doesn't bode well. Also, like Steve, she's on the older side.
Fun Facts: Apparently Mami and Papi weren't too happy when Diana, the baby of the family and the only girl, started copying her older brothers. They wanted her to stick to volleyball. She wanted to beat people up.

They got over it eventually. Diana's also way more normal than Steven (not that that's hard). She has a boyfriend, talks a lot about how much she loves shopping, and has a headshot I drool over.
Social Media Stalking: Diana's Twitter is the best one in USAT, mainly because she's addicted to Instagram and occasionally posts photos of Olympians playing Giant Jenga.

Diana is awesome.

There's also Mark, who's 30. He won silver in 2008, but we don't care about him because he didn't qualify this year.



Terence Jennings

Terrence Jennings is a good-looking man With a good-looking kick. Damn. Look at that extension.

Weight Class: Lightweight
Age: 25
Past Olympic History: None. He was a baby in 2000, in 2004 they didn't include his weight class, and in 2008 he blew out both his knees. Well done, TJ.
Dojang Bros: trained with Cote d'Ivoire Olympian Master Patrice Remarck, who also trained Olympians Aaron Cook (UK), Benita Diedhiou (Senegal) and Daba Modibo Keita (Mali). Trained full-time for most of this year with US Olympic Coach Juan Moreno, along with Paige McPherson. (The Lopezes only trained with Moreno in for a few weeks in May, because they're special snowflakes like that.)
Why He'll Make It: He beat out Mark Lopez, which is hard to do.
Why He'll Choke: He's apparently been a head case in the past. “His only flaw seemed to be his inability to keep his cool when calls, penalties or other elements of fighting did not go his way. Even during practices, Jennings would occasionally come undone; the propensity, Moreno said, 'drove me nuts.'” But Moreno also says he's totally over it now, so who knows?
Fun Facts: He got into taekwondo when he was eleven because the dojang's mall kiosk was showing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons. AWWW. He made Team USA by beating Mark Lopez, who is coming to London as Steven and Diana's training partner. AWKWARD.
Social Media Stalking: Twitter.

Paige McPherson

Weight Class: Middleweight
Age: 22
Past Olympic History: None.
Dojang Bros: Trained with Master Cody Shepperson. Currently training with Juan Moreno, along with Terence Jennings.
Why She'll Make It: Young and spunky. She beat out Nia Abdullah, the 2004 Athens silver medalist, to snag her spot.
Why She'll Choke: Like Diana, she's in the middle of a dry spell. She hasn't won national or international gold since 2009.
Fun Facts: She's one of five adopted siblings. She got into Taekwondo after her parents signed her Korean-American brother up for some cultural heritage reinforcement and Paige started copying him. She's super-duper-extra Christian and mentions God in every single interview I've ever read with her, if not every question of the interview. Her nickname is “McFierce,” apparently. Also, she was born in Abilene, which makes this Olympic team three-quarters Texan. TEXAS FUCK YEAH.
Social Media Stalking: Twitter.


If you live in the United States and have a TV package that includes MSNBC and CNBC, you can watch taekwondo and anything else you please on NBC's LiveExtra site, which is streaming every single Olympic event. If you live in the US, but don't have a TV subscription, you can still get a one-time one-hour freebie to watch one sport, because NBC understands that sometimes, you just really need to watch Diane Lopez kick people in the head. (Okay, realistically everyone's already used this to watch Lochte vs Phelps in the 400 IM. You're welcome, America.)

For everyone else, however, it gets a little bit trickier. Honestly, your best bet is probably to wait until after the matches are over, then wait until they go up on YouTube. It sucks, but catching the more obscure Olympic sports live is hard, and I haven't been able to find any reliable ways to do it on the sly.



When sparring, fighters wear:

Dobok (uniform)
Arm guards
Shin guards
Foot pads
Hand guards
Groin Protection (Required for males, optional for females.)
Hogu (chest protector)

Jewelry is forbidden for safety reasons. I've never seen the issue come up at the international level, but a few fighters at US Nationals wear a khimar or other kind of hijab under their helmets. Fighters also have to keep their nails (finger and toe) clean, unpolished, and trimmed. This seems weird and nitpicky until the first time you get your hand sliced open by someone's groddy toenail, and then it makes total sense.


Korean is taekwondo's lingua franca, and match procedures are usually conducted in Korean. For the benefit of people who want to follow along at home:

  • Hong: The fighter in red.

  • Chuang: The fighter in blue.

  • Charyot: Attention. Fighters stand straight, feet together, with their hands at their sides.

  • Kyongrye: Bow. Usually fighters will also shake hands with each other and with the opposing coaches. Respect is a big deal in TKD.

  • Choonbi: Ready. In sparring, this is the signal to enter fighting stance, where fighters are balanced on the balls of their feet, one foot about a shoulder-width back. Usually they bounce while doing this, much like Tigger. It's a mobility thing.

  • Sijak: Begin.

  • Keuman: Stop. Called to issue a kyungyeo or gamjeong (penalties, see below), or for injuries.

  • Kyesok: Continue.

  • Kyungyeo: Warning/Half-Point deduction. You can get one of these half-a-dozen ways, including stepping or being driven out of the ring, kicking to the groin, holding, false starts, and failing to do what the ref says as quickly as he or she'd like. Get two of these and they knock a point off your score (which means yes, you can have negative points).

  • Gamjeong: Full-point Deduction. Most often given for punching someone in the face or talking smack to the ref. Three gamjeong (or six kyungyeo, or any combination thereof) results in an automatic disqualification, but I've never seen nor heard of that happening.

  • Kiap: You know that long, drawn-out yell people make in bad, old martial arts movies? That is not a kiap. A Kiap is a forceful expulsion of air; it is short, explosive, and comes directly from your diaphragm. Fighters kiap when they go into fighting stance, when they're kicking, when they think they're about to be kicked (kiaping tightens your abdominal muscles, reducing the chance of injury), and basically whenever they feel the need to psyche themselves up or their opponent out. Everyone's kiap is different, and they can get a little... odd. If you decide to watch the Olympics, the “find the weirdest kiap” game is loads of fun. The best I ever heard was a six-foot tall heavyweight dude who basically just sighed really loudly, though the woman who screeched like an eagle was a close second.

Electronic Hogus

This is an exciting Olympics, because for the first time ever, they're changing how points are scored! Under the old system, three corner judges sat around the ring, and pushed a button every time they believed a kick scored. If two out of the three judges agreed within about a second, the kick registered, and the fighter got the point.

This isn't a fool-proof method. The corner judges don't always see the kicks they score; sound is also a major component, and a good solid roundhouse sounds about the same hitting an arm-guard (no point) as it does a hogu (point). Similarly, it can be hard to tell whether a close-range kick hit with the foot (point) or the shin (no point). There's a certain amount of human error involved.

Fortunately (or at least interestingly), after the last Olympics, the WTF decided to get rid of that nasty human error component, and replace it with a much more scientific mechanical error component! They did this by mandating the use of what the WTF call “Protection and Scoring Systems,” what most people call “electronic hogus,” and what every competitor I've ever known who's used one has called “those fucking things.” There are three main systems, LaJust, Daedo, and Adidas, and they all work differently, but the gist of it is that instead of having your kicks registered by black belts, they're registered by sensors. The Adidas system just measures the force of impact using pressure sensors in the hogu. It isn't widely adopted. LaJust and Daedo both measure the force of impact, but also use sensors in the top of the fighter's foot protectors. Basically, if your foot doesn't connect cleanly with the hogu, the sensors don't trip and no point is registered. US Collegiate Taekwondo uses LaJust; it's pretty crap. The Olympics use Daedo, which I've heard is better.

This seems trivial, but it's resulted in some changes in the nature of sparring. Fighters are having to concentrate much more on landing clean hits, because the sensors only register if a certain amount of surface area of the foot comes in contact with the hogu. There's also an emphasis on round kicks, because kicks which hit with the heel now usually only score if they connect with the head. Some older fighters have had a hard time changing their game.

It's also resulted in new and exciting ways to cheat. Last year, a South Korean fighter in international competition was disqualified after she was caught using footpads that had been modified with extra sensors. Return


1Sometimes the referee's long experience results in amusing situations, like in the 2008 Olympics, when Angel Matos was unhappy with a referee's decision and kicked the ref in the face. (Video in link is USA-only, unfortunately.) The referee immediately dropped back into fighting stance and looked like he was ready to patta back. Muscle memory! It is TOTALLY a thing. (Note that Matos is a complete dick and both he and his coach were banned for life for this. The delightfully-accented Aussie commentators in the video were right when they said that this NEVER happens in TKD.) Return

2Up until about four months ago, Moon Daesung was the ultimate Good Korean Boy, because in addition to being an Olympic gold medal sparrer, he also has a PhD in kinesthesiology. Unfortunately, when he ran for a position in the Korean National assembly this spring, it came out that he may have copy-pasted significant chunks of his doctoral thesis. TKD: EVEN OUR SCANDALS ARE NERDY.4 Return

3I speak with a great deal of levity, but this really is an important part of what sets taekwondo apart from, say, mixed martial arts. The ring is a space to enter with respect, for the tradition of the sport and for the efforts of your opponent and your opponent's coaches. This isn't to say that people don't get silly, or mean, or disrespectful; it just means that it's taken much more seriously. C.F. Angel Matos' lifetime ban.Return

4No, really. The three best collegiate Taekwondo programs are out of UCLA, MIT, and Cornell. Half of the US National Poomsae team hold advanced degrees. This is a nerdy, nerdy sport.Return

Hopefully, this giant primer has piqued your interest in my favorite sport. Taekwondo is big and complicated and wonderful and I love it, and I hope you'll watch it and talk to me about it. Thank you for reading!

These patriotic BAMFs thank you for your time. And I thank [personal profile] jamethiel for reading over this and telling me where it was boring.

Date: 2012-07-31 02:33 am (UTC)
musyc: Silver flute resting diagonally across sheet music (Default)
From: [personal profile] musyc
This is the best event introduction I have ever read. Thanks for linking to it in [community profile] goingforgold! It was a great read, and I learned a lot about TKD! XD

Date: 2012-08-08 09:48 am (UTC)
halfeatenmoon: Sketch of a cloud in black ink on white background. (Default)
From: [personal profile] halfeatenmoon
I may be at an advantage watching this with Australian commentary. Taekwondo was strangely HUGE in the neighbourhood I grew up in. Possibly the only neighbourhood in Australia where taekwondo was a big deal, but the guys who ran the local taekwondo association were amazing. Not to mention will still stop and talk to me in the street even though I haven't taken a class in like ten years. I haven't thought about taekwondo in ages, actually, but I did enjoy regularly kicking men who were much taller than me in the head.


paxpinnae: Inara Serra,being more awesome than you. (Default)

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