Over last week and into this one, Gyeongju played host to the Seventh International Tae-Kwon-Do open. Tae-Kwon-Do is, I think, probably the one element of Korean culture most likely to be known by people outside Korea’s border, mostly because it’s a martial art and that’s the main cultural facet of east Asian culture that most people are familiar with. The Open was my opportunity to figure out what exactly Tae-Kwon-Do was outside of this generality.
Oddly, the immediate comparison I kept making as I watched matches was not to other martial arts, but rather fencing. Scoring in Tae-Kwon-Do is decided by the amount of force applied either to the commbatants’ chest sensors (one point), or their head (three points). The reason for the increased point value for head shots is because they’re more difficult- paradoxically, however, provided you can aim that high points are actually easier to receive than body shots. This is because the amount of force required to score points on the head is much lower than what is necessary for the body. Often in the tournament, a competitor would seem to land a very powerful blow on an opponent’s torso- sometimes enough to even knock them down. But no points would be added to the scoreboard. This is apparently a recent rule change. I spoke to an Australian coach about it, and he made sure to point out that this was not a change that was met with universal approval among worldwide Tae-Kwon-Do schools.
Normally scoring is achieved by kicks, but I suspect this is mainly because legs are normally the only part of the body strong enough to set off the body sensors. Every so often, when a competitor had a near perfect shot, they would aim a strong fist at the body and this was scored as normal. I never saw anyone aim for the head with their fists- I don’t know whether this is actually forbidden by the rules or whether some quirk of the combat style (like how their hands are always by their waist as they lightly bounce) renders it impractical.
As far as the actual competition venue, I quickly realized something fun about actually being at these tournaments (rather than, say, watching them on television). A lot of stuff is going on at once. So, if one match is boring, I could always either look around for another one and, if it was really getting intense, change my seat entirely. The venue was relatively empty save for actual teams, though there were television cameras everywhere, especially in the last days of competition. I’ve found some of it online, but most of it is probably with Korean sources that I’ve no idea how to locate.
It’s fortunate that this option was available to me, as unfortunately, most of the matches were fairly boring. A certain kind of frantic energy is needed to make a contest genuinely entertaining to uninvolved spectators, and this only really showed up in some of the matches. I took special note when a competitor had enough skill to hit nearly every time they made an attack (even if they only rarely attacked in the first place). Especially at first, it was also quite surprising whenever someone goes for a high head shot, and misses. Not only does that require excellent kicking technique, the other combatant must have very good instincts in order to dodge the blow just in time. Likewise, when a kick failed to connect, I was always surprised when the person who missed landed back on their feet. They always look like they’re about to fall down, but they only very rarely do so unless their opponent is running some kind of interference.
Even better than these, though, is when a competitor truly knows exactly what they’re doing and never wastes a move. These are the ones who know exactly when and where to kick in order to score a point, and only perform moves of more dubious value when it aids in blocking. Some were even so skilled that they could perform these moves regularly on the body.
However, the scores never got too high. Matches normally are three rounds with ninety seconds per round. There was a mercy rule at some point if one side was winning by far too many points. There was also a fourth round of sudden death overtime, where the first person to score any hit at all was the winner. Should this final round end after ninety seconds with no hits being scored, the winner is decided by judges based on who “was the most aggressive”. The matches I saw that went into overtime were always a treat, as competitors always went at it with everything they had.
Both men and women were represented at the tournament, and in terms of general entertainment, they all did about as well. There were more entertaining matches between men than between women, but I think there may have been more men overall. And all “entertaining” matches were about the same quality, so the determing factor was definitely more the enthusiasm than any physical traits. While men and heavier competitors did have more points on average, regardless of skill level, when I consider only the very best competitions I saw technique and energy were far more important considerations to victory than general build. The person with the best aim at the tournament was a middleweight woman, and she played relatively defensively. However, she was also incredibly reactive, and even though she didn’t go on the attack, it was obvious that her mind was completely focused on the immediate task before her.
There was lots of general cheering at the tournmant as teams pushed their fellows to succeed. I couldn’t understand most of it, as it was usually spoken in native languages rather than English or Korean, and I also had no idea who the cheers were meant for. On the last day at the finals, though, there were a couple of English groups. One Australian man, Kyle (they kept saying his name), was down for most of his match, but thanks to his own determination and his unflailing teammates, he pushed hard right until the end scoring a narrow victory against his clearly exhausted Korean who had been expecting him to give up much sooner.
Another more dubious example was an American woman who competed that day. The American team did their cheering all wrong. They only shouted the utterly obnoxious “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chant, and rarely her name, and usually only when the referees were deliberating. Speaking as a former referee, we generally don’t care if you cheer while the game’s going on. But loudly chanting while we’re trying to deliberate is incredibly annoying and likely to bias us against you even if we try not to. The American woman did quite well, tying the match near the end with a spinning kick (apparently four points instead of three), but lost by judge’s decision in a hard fought overtime where both she and her Thai opponent seemed constantly at each others’ throats but always just disciplined enough to keep from getting scored on.
The referees in general marked another interesting trend I’d never seen before. Around a third of them were women. The profession of referee is overwhelmingly dominated by men, at least in most well-known American sports, so it was nice to see them represented here. Most of them were Korean, with a few international ones scattered about. So the Tae-Kwon-Do associations are, at all levels I think, fairly gender equitable.
A few more tangiential points. First, I only got a very good look at sparring Tae-Kwon-Do. Though there were synchronized form competitions, they were only held during one of my visits, and unfortunately, I did not pay as much attention to them at the time as I should have in retrospect. Also, while I use “man” and “woman” for convenience, a significant part of the competition (especially at lower weight classes) were clearly children. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any paperwork that went into any detail about the individual competitors (only the general apparatus of the tournament), so there’s far too many details about which I’d like to know more, but don’t really know how to go about it. It’s one small black mark I have against them- the people organizing the tournament really didn’t seem to know what to do with anyone who was not directly affiliated with the teams. Regardless, it was a worthwhile experience and I hope I have the opportunity to see another such tournament some time in the future.