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Olympics guide: Taekwondo

By David Goldblatt & Johnny Acton

Olympics guide: Taekwondo

"Kick or punch to the hogu – 1 point" That's our favourite part of this handy helper for watching the Taekwondo. Find out what the hell it means, right here:

Athletes: 128

Golds up for grabs: 8

Olympic presence: Demonstration sport 1988, 1992; full Olympic sport since 2000.

Olympic Format: Four weight divisions for men (58kg, 58–68kg, 68– 80kg, 80kg+) and women (49kg, 49–57kg, 57–67kg, 67kg+). All events are knock-out contests, with eight contestants in each competition seeded on the basis of WTF rankings; others are subject to a random draw. The two bronze medals awarded in each weight division go to the winners of a pair of repechage tournaments, one contested by everyone who lost to the first finalist during the main phase of the competition, the other by those who lost to the second.

Contenders: The South Koreans are expected to dominate – after all, taekwondo is their national sport – but they won’t have things entirely their own way. In the 2011 World Championships, the country’s men lost out to Iran. Their female compatriots did come out on top in the women’s division, but only by way of a strange accounting system. China and France won more gold medals.

Past Champions: S. Korea: 9 | China: 4 | USA , Taiwan, Mexico, Iran: 2

Watch it: 8–11 Aug 2012, ExCel Arena. Catch the BBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games across 24 dedicated channels on freesat



As with most oriental martial arts, taekwondo is a philosophy of life as much as a method of fighting: the extreme concentration required to smash through a stack of wooden boards is an aspect of the mental discipline that will lead one to the truth. But competitive taekwondo requires measurable criteria of success, as well as certain measures to prevent serious injury. Olympic taekwondo is therefore confined to sparring (gyeorugi), a form of constrained combat in which points are awarded for striking various points of the opponent’s body. Other elements of taekwondo include self-defence, breaking boards and tiles, and poomsae – set movements based on imaginary contests against multiple attackers.

Taekwondo means ‘the way of the foot and the fist’, and that in a nutshell is what the sport is about. Contestants are allowed to strike each other only with their feet and the leading part of their closed hands. The leg is the primary weapon, which is logical as it is the longer and more powerful limb. The fists are of secondary importance – although they are invaluable for blocking, strikes with them score fewer points. In boxing parlance, hand-strikes are the jabs, while the kicks are the hooks and uppercuts.

The form of the bout

Olympic taekwondo bouts are held on a square measuring 8 x 8m, with a 2m margin which is not a part of the fighting area. The fighters begin facing each other, standing on starting positions 1m from the centre of the mat. They return to these positions at the beginning of each round. After they have bowed to each other, the referee calls out ‘shi-jak’ and the fighting begins.

Bouts consist of three two-minute rounds separated by one minute rest periods. If the scores are level at the end of the final round, the bout goes into sudden death – the first combatant to score a point wins the match. If no victor has emerged after two minutes, the officials choose a winner on the basis of aggression shown in the sudden death round. According to WTF literature, for a blow to score a point the judges must deem it to have been executed ‘accurately and powerfully’.


A single referee controls each bout and keeps it flowing. In the normal course of events, referees do not award points. This is the job of the four corner judges, whose main task is to score shots to the head (body strikes are recorded electronically). If, however, the judges fail to reach a majority decision about the award or deduction of a point(s), the referee has the casting vote.


Taekwondo is practiced in a traditional uniform known as a dobok, with a protective jacket called a hogu worn over the top. At the Olympics and other major competitions, hogu are fitted with sensors that automatically register hits to the parts of the torso that must be struck to earn points (the front and the sides). This development has relieved the judges of a major burden, but the new technology won’t altogether put a stop to controversy: it has been argued that the sensors are too sensitive, and cannot distinguish between a legitimate strike and a part of the wearer’s body hitting the hogu in a counter-reaction to a successful block. Kicks to the head are scored solely by the judges. Contestants wear plenty of safety equipment. If they didn’t, few bouts would last long. In addition to their blue or red hogu, they sport head and hand protectors, groin, forearm and shin guards and gum-shields.


Punches to the head are forbidden but kicks to it are positively encouraged by the award of up to 4 points.

Points are scored as follows :

Kick or punch to the hogu – 1 point,

Kick to the hogu involving a partial turn of the assailant’s body – 2 points,

Kick to the face or side of the head – 3 points,

Kick to the head or face involving a full spinning turn – 4 points.

To win a bout ahead of the end of the third round, a fighter must achieve a lead of 12 points, though this rule doesn’t apply during the first round. In the event of a knockdown, the referee counts to ten – in Korean. As in boxing, there is a mandatory eight count. If a fighter fails to get up in time, or if the referee deems them to be in no state to continue, their opponent wins.

( Examples of kicks and punches pictured, below)

Penalties and warnings

For every two warnings (kyong-go) a fighter receives, he is punished with a one-point deduction (gam-jum). If a fighter accumulates four point deductions he forfeits the bout. Warnings are issued for the following offences: attacking below the waist; inadvertently striking an opponent’s face with the hand; both feet going over the boundary of the fighting area; feigning injury; avoiding combat; turning the back to an opponent except in the course of executing a spinning kick; holding, pushing, butting or kneeing. More serious offences such as attacking a fallen opponent or deliberately striking them in the face are punished with an instant gam-jum.

Extracted from How to Watch the Olympics by David Goldblatt & Johnny Acton (Profile Books)

(Image: Rex Features)

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