What is taekwondo?

Short answer:

Taekwondo (TKD) is a Korean martial art. It has its roots in the ancient fighting practices of the Koreans but was formalised as a sport and martial discipline a little over 50 years ago. TKD is renowned for its dynamic kicking styles and the high level of fitness it entails.

More elaborate answer:

Murals in the ruins of royal Korean tombs some 2000 years old show men practising a form of unarmed combat. The martial arts tradition persisted over the centuries in Korea, enjoying a glory day 800 years ago when a self-defence art called su-bak emerged with a strong following. Evidence even suggests it was practised as a sport in the truest sense, to entertain spectators.

Ancient wall painting depicting ancient martial arts
Ancient Korean mural depicting martial art.

Although the sport declined, the arts survived and, when Korea was liberated after World War II, national interest in martial arts surged again. A move in the 1950s to unify the various forms and create one sport led to Taekwondo, translating : Tae – ‘attacking’ with feet, Kwon – ‘attacking’ with hands, and Do – ‘way’ or ‘art’.

The meaning for ‘Do’ however is far more complex than just ‘way’. A more accurate translation is ‘way of life’. Taekwondo is not just a physical regime of kicking and punching; it is a discipline of mind and body. One of the first things many people say they have gained from Taekwondo is increased self-confidence and self-discipline.

By the 1960s, interest was spreading overseas; however it was not until 1973 that the sport staged its first world championships. The first Olympic exposure came in 1988, at Seoul, as a demonstration sport. Taekwondo remained a demonstration sport in 1992 at Barcelona, until finally in the Sydney 2000 games it become a full Olympic sport.

Taekwondo – A world sport

More than 50 million followers in about 200 countries around the world now practise taekwondo, and other countries have begun to challenge the original dominance of Korea in international competition. Still, one look at – and listen to – the sport shows the unmistakable imprint of its Korean heritage.

After calling them to attention, the referee’s opening command to the contestants is kyeong-rye . This instructs them to bow to each other. From there, the commands range from joon-bi (prepare to start) and shi-jak (start) to deuk-jeom (a point) and kyong-go (a warning).

Taekwondo at London Olympic Games
Taekwondo at London Olympic Games

The contestants are referred to as “chung” and “hong”; the person in blue and the person in red. Each wears a dobok, the uniform, and tries to be the one standing in good health when the referee counts out yeo-dul or yeol .

Yeo-dul is “eight,” the end of a mandatory eight-count after a knockdown . Yeol is “10,” when a knockdown becomes a knockout and there is no resumption