2012 Olympic Taekwondo Fighters to Watch

I haven’t followed Olympic Taekwondo before, but with the games just 10 days away (Taekwondo is scheduled for Aug 8-11) and myself itching to get back into training, I decided to scour the internet for some previews. Here are some highlights of people and teams to watch:

Traditionally, Korea has dominated in the sport of their home country. Just scroll down and look little Korean flag icons on the medal tables for Olympic Taekwondo and the World Taekwondo Championships, the two major international Taekwondo competitions. They swept the 2008 Beijing Olympics by winning gold in all four events they competed in; however, their performance was disappointing during last year’s world championships on home turf, where they only tied for first with Iran. Their new team contains two returning champions (Cha Dong-min and Hwang Kyung-seon), and it will be interesting to see if they can regain their former glory.

Team USA, which ranks third in overall medal count at the Olympics, is a force to be reckoned with. Two members (Steven and Diana Lopez) and a coach (Jean Lopez) are all from the same family, and it would have almost been a full house had Terrence Jennings not defeated brother Mark Lopez at the Olympic trials. Two-time defending Olympic champion and four-time world champion Steven Lopez has a history of rigorous training twinged with just a little hubris, but it appears that one of his most prominent opponents Aaron Cook (who defeated him in Mexico) has already lost the battle–with the British Olympic Association.  Nevertheless, medal projections (which are shared on Sports Illustrated but appear to originate from China Daily, so you know how much they’ll favor the US) have Lopez coming in second to Azerbaijan’s Ramin Azizoz (You can watch a video of him getting knocked out here). In an insightful display of American brilliance, Lopez shares his winning strategy: “I want to land my foot on my opponent and not let him land his foot on me. Actually doing it may be a little trickier.”

Also sure to be politically rivalrous are two possible China-Taiwan line-ups: #2 ranked Hou Yuzhuo vs. #1 ranked Tseng Li Cheng (bonus points if you can tell by name which is which) for featherweight division, and China’s Wu Jingyu vs Taiwan’s Yang Shu-chun for flyweight division. For those of you with patience, here’s a video of Wu and Yang’s match during last year’s world championship, in which Wu won 6-2. (For those without patience, skip to 12:35 for a slow-mo view of the 3-point head kick that secured Wu’s victory.)

Finally, the underdog I’ll sure to be rooting for, Afghanistan’s Rohullah Nikpai. Four years ago he upset world champion Juan Antonio Ramos to bring his country the first Olympic medal (a bronze) and, to borrow a cheesy line, “emerged as a symbol of hope for a nation scarred by conflict.” Watch this video from 19:15 (unfortunately it won’t let me embed right to that point so you’ll have to let it load a bit), and you’ll be moved as well.

However, perhaps most interesting will be the fact that Taekwondo may be on the brink of being removed from the Olympics, after a number of controversies including scoring protests and a referee assault. The International Olympic Committee is poised to reduce the number of core sports from 26 to 25 next year, and Taekwondo may be on the cutting block.

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