Taekwondo flips rules, hopes for best
The biggest fight in taekwondo may be finished before the Olympics even begin.
Top-ranked British star Aaron Cook was excluded him from the Olympic team in favor of rival Lutalo Muhammad, who is ranked 104th.
British sports minister Hugh Robertson said the controversy was embarrassing. The World Taekwondo Federation, the martial art's governing body, slammed the UK for dragging the sport into ''disrepute'' and is conducting its own review into the decision.
While Cook's ultimate decision to withdraw any appeals ended a controversy which was the last thing taekwondo needs, other issues remain. The sport was hampered by scoring problems at the Beijing Olympics and nearly tossed out of the Games. Next year, officials will be reviewing whether taekwondo should stay in the Olympics — just as other combat sports like karate try to claw their way in.
Since the Korean martial art was introduced at the Olympics in 2000, numerous countries have honed their kicking skills and South Korea's traditional dominance has dipped. Iran has a taekwondo television channel and a national league where players compete regularly. When Afghan fighter Rohullah Nikpai won the country's first-ever Olympic medal in taekwondo in Beijing, he became a national hero and was given a house by President Hamid Karzai.
In the US, American fighter Steven Lopez is taekwondo's biggest star, winning a record five world championships, two Olympic golds and a bronze at Beijing. Coached by older brother Jean, Lopez will compete alongside his sister, Diana, at the London Games.
Lopez's strategy sounds simple enough.
''I want to land my foot on my opponent and not let him land his foot on me,'' he said. ''Actually doing it may be a little trickier.''
Points are tracked by an electronic scoring system now and are only awarded if fighters kick or punch their opponent's chest protector with sufficient force. Punches to the head aren't allowed.
The rules were recently changed to grant points for head kicks any time a fighter's foot touches their opponent's head guard regardless of whether any force is used. Head kicks score three to four points while kicks or punches to the body only score one point. With more fighters attempting the fancy kicks for more points, taekwondo has become more exciting for spectators.
Lopez has mixed feelings about the recent change, acknowledging officials probably were trying to make the sport safer since fighters often go for more head kicks to win.
''Taekwondo is a full-contact sport,'' he said. ''It's a little silly that you can now just tap (your opponent's) head and get three points, but I will implement whatever strategy I need to win.''
Jean-Marie Ayer, secretary general of the World Taekwondo Federation, said the changes were made to focus on speed and lightness rather than the deadly power of a traditional martial art.
''We want this to remain a sport where you want to send your children to,'' he said.
Ayer said the electronic scoring system is much more objective and has eliminated many of the protests from athletes and coaches, who also are entitled to at least one video replay for a disputed point. He thinks traditional powers such as South Korea and China will win many Olympic divisions, but is hoping athletes from developing countries like Afghanistan and Mali also will pocket some medals.
Ayer said the WTF has started its own review into Britain's exclusion of Cook and hopes to release its findings soon so the scandal can be resolved before the Olympics.
Jamie Cunningham, Cook's agent, said they have floated the idea of a preliminary fight-off between Cook and Muhammad before the Olympic competition begins, to publicly settle the question of who should represent the host country.
''It is a long shot, but there is a structure in the London Games to allow for that,'' Cunningham said. ''I can't think of a better way to show off taekwondo than to have a fight-off to start the Olympics.''
Gold: Shu Chun Yang, Chinese Taipei
Silver: Jingyu Wu, China
Bronze: Rukiye Yildirim, Turkey, Sanaa Atabrour, Morocco
Gold: Hou Yuzhuo, China
Silver: Li Cheng Tseng, Chinese Taipei
Bronze: Diana Lopez, USA, Marlene Harnois, France
Gold: Hwang Kyung-Sun, South Korea
Silver: Karine Sergerie, Canada
Bronze: Seham El Sawalhy, Egypt, Helena Fromm, Germany
Gold: Anne-Caroline Graffe, France
Silver: Maria Del Rosario Espinoza, Mexico
Bronze: In-Jong Lee, South Korea, Anastasia Baryshnikova, Russia
Gold: Joel Gonzalez Bonilla, Spain
Silver: Lee Dae-Hoon, South Korea
Bronze: Chen Yang Wei, Chinese Taipei, Chutchawal Khawlaor, Thailand
Gold: Mohammad Motamed Bagheri, Iran
Silver: Servet Tazegul, Turkey
Bronze: Martin Stamper, Britain, Rohullah Nikpai, Afghanistan
Gold: Ramin Azizoz, Azerbaijan
Silver: Steven Lopez, USA
Bronze: Yousef Karami, Iran, Nicolas Garcia, Spain
Gold: Cha Dong-Min, South Korea
Silver: Francois Coulombe-Fortier, Canada
Bronze: Xiaobo Liu, China, Carlo Molfetta, Italy