Uncovering the dark side of Taekwondo

The rise of Tae Kwon Do from a virtually unknown South Korean sport in the early 70s to an Olympic sport has been phenomenal. The rise in TKD’s popularity has also bought in a lot more money. But squeaky clean image of TKD has been tarnished with corruption, cronyism and all sorts of legal issues.

This will stun you: Taekwondo is the most corrupt sport in South Korea. The Korean Herald this week reported that 742 corruption cases related to Taekwondo were reported to Korea’s sports and cultural ministry between 2014 and August 2017. Out of that, 122 involved law enforcement or disciplinary action.

In a way, that’s no surprise: Taekwondo is a national treasure in Korea, and it is treated like a business. Revenue is generated through marketing, Olympic deals, partnerships, sponsorships and a lot more. To curry favors, money is sent under the table. Once an organization/company is associated with World Taekwondo Federation, there are more Olympic and other deals to be made.

Corruption in Taekwondo isn’t new, but it is growing. Back in 2011, a Chinese official running the Taekwondo association in the country was charged with corruption. A little footnote in the story says that China has won a gold medal in Olympic Taekwondo since 2000. Match fixing perhaps?

Outside of corruption, there are a lot more dubious things the World Taekwondo Federation — the world’s ruling body — is doing.

The WTF is aggressively targeting the emerging market of India. In recent years, 5th dan black belts have been dished out to half a dozen Bollywood stars who have little to do with the martial art. Having a prominent Bollywood star’s name attached to Taekwondo is big stuff, and the resulting stories is free advertising for TKD. That’s good for the sport, but the free black belts dilutes the value of every ordinary person who toils for years to reach that status.

Everyday practitioners are fighting back in subtle ways. An established black belt in Brazil identified rampant corruption involved in Tae Kwon Do in Brazil as disillusioning athletes. It’s one way of speaking up.

In the U.S., LadyTKD has established herself as one of the biggest critics of USA Taekwondo for more than a decade now. I don’t know her name, but enjoyed reading her blog that kept USA Taekwondo accountable. Her blog isn’t on anymore, but she’s active on Facebook, still a major force in USA Taekwondo implementing rule changes and personnel decisions. USA Taekwondo may not like her, but can’t ignore her. It’s her love for the sport that makes her puts in such effort — I haven’t seen so much passion from an individual to keep Taekwondo reformed.

In the U.S., sexual abuse has made Taekwondo an unsafe sport for some female practitioners. The TKD world was rocked in May when some of most famous male USA Taekwondo practitioners were accused of sexual abuse. These men were temporarily suspended back in 2015, but little action has been taken since even after investigations. The victims have been left in the cold, but there’s a lesson learned: Women, watch out and stay safe when you are competing on the road. A victim, Christina Johnson, has a page on Facebook telling her story.

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