Some people have been asking me about taekwondo at the Olympics, so I thought I’d do this post to clarify a few things.

There are two main “disciplines” of Taekwondo – the International Taekwondo Federation and the World Taekwondo Federation. I study and teach under ITF, whilst to enter the Olympics you need to train under WTF.

There are some major differences between the two. I’m going to attempt to list the main ones below. Before I do so, I must stress I have never trained under WTF, so this is just from unscientific observations. and these are merely my opinion, so no getting all ninja on me if you disagree with my opinion!

Taekwondo translated means something like “Art of the Hand and Foot”. It is supposed to be a kicking and punching martial art, unlike the likes of Judo which involves throws and pins. In both styles, the art is broken into two parts; patterns, which are a sequence of punches, kicks and blocks done in a set sequence, and sparring, which is a practical demonstration of martial arts technique against a real opponent. The key phrase here is demonstration of technique – despite how it looks sometimes, it is not a fight to the death. All moves must be controlled to score a point, and you can only strike the torso and side of the head.

Now for the differences:

ITF usually has a tight guard, with one hand protecting the head, the other protecting the abdomen. Since this guard, and the associated blocking moves, are key to the ITF fighting style, sparing matches tend to involve the two sparrers spending a lot of time close / medium range.
WTF doesn’t use a guard in the traditional sense, only utilising a block when needed. As such, a lot of the fight is spent at medium to long range, with the sparrers only engaging when launching an attack (or defending against said attack).

While both styles score more points for kicks, especially kicks to the head, WTF scores more points for jumping kicks to the head. As such, emphasis is often put on scoring these kicks. It appears the idea of using hand techniques for some “quick-win” points, a technique often used under ITF, is not a concept taught under WTF. Either that, or the Olympic candidates are just focused on kicking techniques.

WTF fight three 2-minute rounds at the Olympics, with a minute break in between. As far as I know, most major ITF fights only last one round, but I’m willing to be corrected on this.

In both cases, the fighting styles are different because of a different culture and style. One cannot say ITF or WTF is “better” as they’re both designed with different outcomes and rules in mind. Much as I may comment to those close to me how watching TKD at the Olympics is frustrating, it is only because I know if I was in the arena, I’d fight completely differently and exploit that open, unguarded chest guard. But I’d probably be beaten quite quickly since I’m not trained to anticipate some of the kicks they’d undoubtedly use.

Oh, one final difference…I’d never ever offer my students an ice-pack and massage between fights…! 🙂

– Michael