RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 20: Taekwondo may be best known for its flashy and acrobatic kicks, but the electronic scoring system used at the Olympics apparently doesn't care whether or not fighters use the correct technique. That's resulting in a lot of bizarre kicks that no true practitioner of the Korean martial art would recognize, in a departure that some say cheapens the sport.
Sparring in taekwondo has traditionally relied on numerous kicks delivered with technical accuracy; depending on the kick, fighters usually strike with the blade of the foot, the heel or the front of the foot, with toes pointed back. To take advantage of the electronic scoring system — which merely detects force rather than a competitor's skill — some taekwondo fighters and their coaches have figured out that the best-scoring kicks sometimes sacrifice form for expediency.
"I've definitely seen some weird kicks that you would never teach at any taekwondo school," said Steven Lopez, the sport's most decorated athlete, who was competing in a record fifth Olympics. "They flick their legs up trying to do something to score, but it is not taekwondo."
Unfortunately for Lopez, his Tunisian opponent Oussama Oueslati, in his bronze medal match on Friday didn't have a problem with those unusual techniques — and used many of them to defeat him.
Oueslati repeatedly used a move referred to by some as a "scorpion kick," where he would swing his leg up towards Lopez's head and then snap it back like a scorpion tail.
No such kick exists in the traditional taekwondo repertoire but because the technique results in the foot tapping the head guard, it frequently scores on the electronic system.
"Fighters won't care whether it looks like a banana kick or a twist kick or whatever it is, as long as it's working," said Australian taekwondo competitor Safwan Khalil. He recalled a fight he had during the Rio Games with an opponent whose strange kicks caught him off-guard. "When he started throwing those twist kicks, I was just like, 'OK, What are we doing here? This is taekwondo?' But you just have to roll with it."
Kim So-hui, this year's Olympic taekwondo champion in the women's 49-kilogram division, said she isn't thrilled about the evolution of the martial art either.
"Unfortunately, there's nothing I can do about it," said the South Korean athlete after clinching the gold medal on Wednesday. "It's the taekwondo federation that decided that, not the athletes," she said, noting that she declines to use any of the hybrid techniques.
The sport's governing body acknowledged further scoring changes might be necessary.
"Athletes are at the very heart of the World Taekwondo Federation and so we are always ready to listen to feedback from them on how they think our sport can be improved," said Jung Kook-Hyun, the federation's chairman of the technical committee, in an email. "We are committed to constantly modernizing the sport but we always want to find a balance with honoring our traditions," he said, adding the federation would consider possible reforms after Rio.
Some coaches are divided about whether or not to recommend using the unorthodox kicks.
"I don't like teaching these techniques, but that's the sport," said Jean Lopez, who directs the U.S. taekwondo team, including his brother Steven. "I think it's compromised taekwondo so that it's become less about fighting — and taekwondo is a martial art, a fighting sport," he said.
Many athletes say that because the odd techniques often score, they cannot be ignored.
"Our job as athletes is to adapt as best we can and still give our best and produce good results," said South Korea's Oh Hye-Ri, gold medalist in the women's 67-kilogram division. Oh dominated most of her opponents by employing a steady stream of old-school head kicks that her competitors were unable to counter.
Still, she said that she wasn't opposed to the evolution of the sport, even though it means extra training.
"I also practice a lot of those kicks as well," she said, providing a quick demonstration of what some describe as a "donkey kick," where fighters jerk their leg up awkwardly to twist the back of their foot onto their opponent's body protector. "If it can win the fight, you have to try."