The Art of Pushing: Olympic Taekwondo

Miroslav Imbrišević
Heythrop College,  University of London


There was a lot of booing when the British fighter Bianca Walkden won gold (+73kg division) at the World Taekwondo Championships in Manchester on 17th May 2019. The 27-year-old from Liverpool defeated her Chinese opponent Zheng Shuyin, not on points, but by forcing her opponent repeatedly to step outside of the ring, which led to Zhang’s disqualification. The booing continued at the medal ceremony and Zheng, who was visibly distraught, refused to celebrate with Walkden. 

A Win is a Win

The BBC commentator talked of a street brawl and of a win ‘by any means necessary’. Afterwards Walkden said: ‘I went out there needing to find a different way to win and a win is a win if you disqualify someone – it’s not my fault.’ The British fighter’s message here: it doesn’t matter how you win, it only matters that you win.

Taekwondo is a Korean martial art and Olympic sport. It first featured in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. The name of this form of combat refers to ‘the art of kicking and punching’ – not ‘the art of pushing’ as you might think after watching Bianca Walkden’s fight. Pushing your opponent (using your hands) has been against the rules of sparring in Taekwondo for a long time (for at least 30 years, when I was a young instructor in Edinburgh). In early 2017 there was a rule change. Now pushing your opponent is allowed if you immediately follow up with a kick, but simply pushing your opponent, without any follow-up attack, is still penalized. The rule change was introduced in order to facilitate continuity of fighting. This would presumably reduce frequent clinches, which would then have to be broken up by the referee. 

The Fight

At the beginning of the bout the Chinese fighter took a defensive approach, whereas Walkden adopted an attacking strategy. At the end of the first round Walkden led by 2:0. One point was given for a clean punch, and one point was a penalty (gam-jeom) awarded against Zheng. However, in round 2 Zhang began to attack and at the end of this round she led by 20:6 points. 

Refereeing Errors 

The fourth penalty point against Zheng, awarded in round 2, for stepping outside of the ring, constituted a refereeing error, because Walkden had also stepped outside of the contest area. She should have been penalized for this. Then the referee awarded the fifth penalty point in favour of Walkden, but did not realise that Walkden had pushed her opponent over the boundary line without following it up with a kick. This point should not have been given either. The same happened in round 3 when the referee awarded the eighth penalty point. The audience also witnessed Walkden pushing Zhang within the contest area without following up with a kick, and instances when she grabbed Zhang by her body protector and proceeded to kick – she should have been penalized for this. The tenth penalty point against Zheng was also wrongly awarded. Walkden made only a perfunctory attempt to kick and then pushed her opponent over the boundary line – it was actually a low kick, at knee level, which is prohibited. This means that at least 4 penalty points should not have been given in favour of Walkden. 

The author with his Taekwondo teacher, Master Han Wong, 1987.

With 48 seconds left in the third and final round the score was 20:10 for Zhang. Nine out of the ten points by Walkden were the result of penalty points against Zhang. Up to this moment the British fighter had only scored one point for a successful punch, whereas Zhang had scored 20 points for successful kicks and punches. The Chinese competitor was clearly the superior fighter. She had beaten Walkden in three previous encounters: at the WTF World Grand Prix in Manchester in 2015, at the 2016 Rio Olympics and at the World Taekwondo GP in Manchester. At this moment in the fight Walkden pushed Zhang out of the ring again and this made it ten penalty points against Zhang, something which leads to automatic disqualification.

It is noteworthy that Walkden’s follow-up kicks after pushing never resulted in a score. Her kicks were either too weak or only perfunctory because the aim was to push her opponent over the boundary line, rather than to score valid points for kicks or punches. The purpose of the rule change, to facilitate continuity of fighting, was subverted because the fight was stopped every time Walkden pushed Zhang out of the ring.

The booing of the audience reflects the undesirability of a victory by a clearly inferior fighter based on disqualification (due to a combination of poor ring management skills by Zhang and several refereeing errors). After all, the central test in Taekwondo concerns the kicking and punching (and blocking) abilities of the contestants. And in this respect Zhang was the superior fighter and the score would be 20:1 for Zhang, if we were to ignore the penalty points. Furthermore, all practitioners who have been training for more than two years know that pushing your opponent, whether following it up with a kick or not, used to be against the rules – and they also know that there isn’t much skill in pushing.

Martial Art and Olympic Sport

Should the result stand? From the Olympic sport point of view the answer is: Yes. Zhang did not find a response to her opponent’s tactics. As part of her preparation she presumably would have watched Walkden’s final against Madelynn Gorman-Shore at the Wuxi 2018 World Taekwondo Grand Slam. There, Walkden had made some use of the pushing technique and she won the bout. Every competitor needs good ring management skills; they need to be able to side step continuous pushing in the direction of the boundary line. Even without the refereeing errors, Zhang’s ring management skills were poor. But these skills, I submit, are not central to the test in Olympic Taekwondo.

From the martial arts point of view this was not an honourable win. Walkden did not beat Zhang on points but through forcing her into errors, which led to her disqualification. A true martial artist could not enjoy winning in this fashion. In this bout we could see how the ethos of the martial art and the ethos of the Olympic sport came apart. One of the five tenets of Taekwondo, integrity (here understood as respect for your opponent and for yourself), has been abandoned in favour of the idea that winning is all that counts. 

Such a split is something we have been observing in Western sports for a while now. In football, for example, sportsmanship and fair play urge against committing strategic fouls or trying to argue with the referee, but competitors do it anyway. In Manchester it became apparent that when martial arts become sports they are not immune to such tactics: using the rules in a way which is contrary to the spirit of the martial art is now an option. Two other examples from Olympic Taekwondo come to mind: the use of the VAR-card at the end of a match to give a tired fighter an opportunity to take a breather and, second, when being comfortably in the lead, refusing to engage with your opponent in the dying moments of the third round by running out of the contest area. Such a competitor is refusing to fight. This tactic only results in one penalty point, but it is contrary to the spirit of Taekwondo, because of another of its tenets: indomitable spirit.

Copyright © Miroslav Imbrišević 2019

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