Taekwondo: Kicking the big time (may contain spoilers)

Can a martial art be a competitive sport without compromising its essence? Could you take something as brutally efficient with real world application as Krav Maga and turn it into a spectator sport without it compromising its integrity?

There is something quite special about engaging in a martial art that allows you to show your stuff and take part in competitions across the country, even across the world. Taekwondo is an Olympic sport, it has a main regulatory body, you can gain central membership, and you can buy sharp looking white suits – in some ways it feels really good to be mainstream. Loving Wing Chun is all well and good, but it’s a fringe pursuit – and sometimes it feels it.

Taekwondo is the warm embrace of mainstream acceptance, and it’s great. The body amour and pressed white robes give it something of the respectable feel of fencing. Infact, fencing is a good parallel for the sport as the two take a similar format, but the one using a leg in the place of a foil. You might argue that this makes it fundamentally different, and you’d be exactly right, but I do maintain there is something a little sophisticated and middle class on the Taekwondo mat. If Taekwondo was a supermarket, it would be Waitrose.

The underlying principles of Taekwondo are in some ways similar to Wing Chun, which of course means that they very much appeal to me. Speed and application override size and strength. Though unlike Wing Chun, which promotes a stable base, Taekwondo adopts a less secure stance. It trades stability for flexibility resulting in explosively dynamic strike attacks. These demand a high degree of flexibility with agility being central to successful practice. The kicks often focus upon the head and torso, the point giving areas in competitions, with execution channeling precision and dexterity.

Arriving at class I was struck by the demographic. The larger proportion of the class were women, which sadly is something of a novelty in martial arts. Many of the practitioners were educated to a high level and had practiced Taekwondo from a young age. They were also welcoming and extremely tolerant of my shortcomings regarding the sport, meaning my rigidity regarding high kicks, hamstringing me slightly in the sport – so to speak.

We drilled for an hour, the focus upon agility and speed. Next came pad work, which was conducted solely using the feet: high kicks, spin kicks, side kicks. Everything was targeted toward the head and torso. All very alien to a practitioner of Wing Chun, an art that sports not more than half a dozen kicks all targeted below waist level, but no less exciting for all that. Speaking to a fellow student, a bright young neuroscientist from China, she commented that it would be amazing to bring together both styles and that, maybe one day, she would do it.

Then came out the body armour. I sat on the side as they spared. Taekwondo is pretty fun, it’s flamboyant and fast paced. It looks really good, the axe kick in particular looks extraordinary; as the leg is brought above the head of your opponent and then brought down heavily upon them. I enjoyed it a lot, but I do question whether, in tapping into that mainstream audience, it hasn’t lost a part of its soul. Like a musician who has turned away from his passions in favour of popular recognition, Taekwondo has compromised its practicality as a martial art. Just like Ryan Gosling in the film La La Land, Taekwondo has gained fame at the price of, at least some of, its integrity. Wing Chun might not be as popular, and it have chic white robes, but it probably would have kept Emma Stone.

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