Written by By Anastasia Maslova, CNN
It’s been compared to the rise of comic books and manga. Taekwondo may be a timeless discipline filled with elegant patterns and ingenious techniques, but it is not a mainstream sport. Yet it will be in the 2020 Paralympics: The first time a martial art usually associated with the wealthy and military is competing on the world stage.
“As a martial art, it’s very technical,” explains Kenny Santos, the taekwondo head coach for the U.S. Olympic fencing team, that will compete in Tokyo. “But at the Olympic level, it’s about being athletes, and focusing on the skills you can have, and the impact you can have.”
That’s pretty much how taekwondo works. It is a defensive sport, not a sport of offense, and is made up of three disciplines: sparring, sport and ultimate fighting. The first two require total resistance, while the third is a bout of three rounds: two minutes of sparring and, if necessary, 30 seconds of one-on-one ground fighting.
International rules dictate no kicks are allowed in the Paralympics, although the new rulebook (adopted by the International Association of Taekwondo Associations) specifies that a line of attack in the air will be opened. This isn’t it, though: the Olympics allows for high kicks and punches.
“Before the Paralympics started in the late 1960s, people thought that athletes would be disabled [as a result],” says Santos. “But then you see those athletes being able to do other things — walking races in the winter, someone can do a marathon … You have to get your athletes to train for the Olympic level. You can’t just play the Olympics every four years.”
Raj Pushkati, a high-wire walker, is a taekwondo silver medalist and one of the few disabled athletes to compete in the Olympics. Image by: Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
Such a turnaround is not simply a sporting success; it is a social triumph. For the first time in history, a sport traditionally associated with military training and discipline is about being happy to have not given up. This won’t be an issue in 2020; the U.S. taekwondo team will train at the academy in San Jose, a SportsCenter star has described taekwondo as a “buddy sport.”
Thus the inspiration for the cultural significance of the sport lies in the role that taekwondo plays in the lives of average middle-class Americans: an excellent spectator sport for kids, one of the best communicators in high schools, and a bad-ass gaming companion, with games like Tekken breaking sales records.
It could even be a secret weapon at the Tokyo Olympics, where controversy has already dogged a performance of the United States boxing team, with fighters Blake Caparello and Joseph Diaz, Jr. questioned after questionable decisions in their preliminary fights.
The outspokenly clear Santos is confident the U.S. will win. “Yeah, 100% [we’re going to win]. [Coming to the Olympics] has been in our blood,” he says. “We’ll be able to mix it up, spar with them, learn to box and take what they give us.”
The two brothers, Caparello and Diaz, in their first-round bout. Image by: Hannah Johnston/Getty Images
Like most sports, the road to the Olympics is long and arduous. Coaches and athletes work hard and sacrifice. However, the coach’s approach is significantly different from Olympians. “You can’t wait four years, you’ve got to work, you have to be ready,” says Santos.
The emphasis is on emphasizing taekwondo’s individual accomplishments — not just its moneymaking potential. “We have to promote [the fact] that you can have both sports on the Olympic stage,” he says.
The similarities between the two sports are impressive. Taekwondo dates back 1,000 years, to the time of the Peking Emperor, and its roots are intertwined with martial arts from across the world. “It’s one of those sports you can do anything with,” says Santos. “You can fly, you can fight, you can float. You have a bunch of things you can do.”