S. Korean taekwondo seeks redemption
Posted: Saturday August 7, 2004 5:29PM; Updated: Saturday August 7, 2004 5:29PM
SEOUL, Aug 6 (Reuters) -- For South Korea's taekwondo team, the trip to Athens this month is as much about redemption as it is about beating back fast-rising European challengers for gold medals in the country's national martial art.
A sport that mixes judo moves and sharp kicks, taekwondo served South Korea as a near-certain source of glory when it was a demonstration sport at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and in its debut as an official event four years ago in Sydney.
But it was outside the ring that South Korean taekwondo suffered a body blow this year with the jailing on multiple corruption charges of the man who put the sport on the world map.
Former International Olympic Committee (IOC) vice-president Kim Un-yong was jailed for two-and-a-half years in June on corruption charges connected with his leadership of the South Korean National Olympic Committee and the World Taekwondo Federation.
One of many prominent South Koreans snared in the latest of numerous attempts to root out corruption, Kim was charged with taking 3.8 billion won ($3.26 million) from taekwondo federations and receiving bribes from sports officials and businesses.
Two months on, the South Korean taekwondo team's four members crisply kick cushions at a brand-new training centre named "Return in Triumph."
"After the Kim scandal, people are saying that there should be a new star to devote himself to the globalisation of taekwondo," said Moon Dae-sung, one of South Korea's medal hopefuls and a doctoral student in the ancient martial art.
"I want to be that much-needed star who will make a clean image for this sport," he said.
Kim's downfall after three decades as the godfather of taekwondo caused panic among South Koreans, who feared their sport could even be dropped as Olympic event in the face of lobbying by China and Japan for other martial arts.
Taekwondo means "the way of kicking and striking" and was promoted by South Korea to distinguish itself from Asian rivals.
In late June, Kim was replaced as taekwondo federation head by Choue Chung-won, elected in the first direct vote in the federation's 30-year history.
Choue's task is to restore morale and make up ground lost during the internal conflict to other countries that have become more competitive in taekwondo.
"The taekwondo environment abroad has changed a lot," said Cheong Gook-hyun, professor of taekwondo at the Korean National Sports University. "We should be more open to new talent so that we can ride on the wave of change."
Asked what goals he had set for Athens, team manager Kim Se-hyuk told Reuters: "We want to win all four golds."
But he conceded his team faced "menacing rivals" from countries such as France, Denmark and Italy.
"European taekwondo is in full swing," Kim Se-hyuk said. "Greece in particular has threatening competitors -- all the more because they have home-field advantage."
One of the strongest medal hopes to emerge from intensive physical training in the mountains of Kangwon province northeast of Seoul is the swift-kicking, 18-year-old Hwang Kyung-sun.
Hwang has been dubbed "Cinderella" because she won a ticket to Athens without having any previous international experience.
Taekwondo professor Cheong describes her form as "amazingly perfect," adding: "I don't want to withhold any compliment for her."
Manager Kim Se-hyuk says the internationalisation of taekwondo that South Koreans had aggressively promoted has eroded the country's traditional dominance of the sport.
"South Korean players used to play the rabbit against the slow and steady tortoise," Kim Se-hyuk said. "Now we need to be mentally armed again."
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