What can We Learn from Taekwondo at the Olympics?
Well, first of all… don’t kick the ref in the head.
The 2008 Olympic Games have ended and the overall result has been positive; no major protests (although that may be due to detention of any potential protesters), only a few judging “hiccups”, a Chinese competitor age-scandal, falsified and digitally created fireworks, and only one fake opening ceremonies performance. Not bad… oh wait.
The poor judging was most publicized in taekwondo. Inconsistent referees, suspicions of a scandal to give China a medal in this event, and miscommunication resulting in a well-formed roundhouse kick to the face cast a grim cloud over Olympic Taekwondo (in addition to the smog). No doubt about it, this fiasco is going to be remembered for a while, and the IOC won’t forget about it next year when it grills the WKF on a proposal for refereeing karate in future Olympics.
But what can we learn from these results? I believe there is much to be learned, socially, athletically, and professionally.
When it comes to judging, we need to remove as much subjectivity as possible. Referees and corner judges need to be trained and perhaps an agreement needs to be found on the certification required. I say this because there are in fact a few ways one can become a certified karate judge: JKA, ISKF, CKC, and WKF, to name a few. These organizations all produce highly professional judges and referees. But taekwondo and boxing in the United States have seldom seen controversy or significant arguments in refereeing outside of the Olympics. Why? Perhaps the temptation to bias fighters is removed. Boxing in the US usually just has US competitors. Refs don’t care one way or the other who wins. This is not the case at the Olympics. Every country wants its competitors to win more medals.
The expectations of competitors needs to be clear. Many Olympic sports have been around for 20+ years and so the rules for these have been established. With this much history, we should be able to draw out the necessary rules from these to apply to karate (with some modification, of course). The Cuban competitor who kicked the ref in the head claimed he and his coach were unaware of the 1 minute time limit to clean and repair damages (such as a eye abrasion). The ref and the IOC argued that this was a common practice in taekwondo competition and was documented in the rules and regulations. Clearly the Cuban team should have read these before competing.
Now here’s a suggestion that may be radical: hockey and many other professional sports have long been “going upstairs” to review a goal or make a decision on a play — why can’t karate do the same? At any Olympics there are dozens of cameras on every competitor at all times, many of which are of the highest quality. If its accuracy of judging and refereeing that we want, a panel of judges “upstairs” could be watching and reviewing all competitions. When the ref blows a whistle, stop the match for a brief moment and review the tape.
Many techniques happen very quickly and at nearly the exact same time as an opponent. This can be hard to catch even for a seasoned karate referee. High-speed video cameras such as those used in other professional sports may enhance the human capacity for judging.
What else can we learn? What insights can we gain from watching this year’s Olympic Games?