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Meaning “foot fist way”, the martial art of taekwondo was conceived in the Republic of Korea, where its rules were codified in the late 1950s. Characterised by its use of a wide variety of highly technical kicks and by fast kicking techniques, it first appeared on the Olympic programme at Sydney 2000.
While the country that gave birth to this spectacular sport stands proudly at the top of the Olympic medal table with 10 golds and 14 medals in total, taekwondo is now very much a global sport, with no fewer than 33 nations from every continent having won medals at the four editions of the Games since it made its debut.
One of the Republic of Korea’s brightest stars is the 21-year-old Taehun Kim, the reigning two-time 54kg world champion. Kim won first of his world crowns in Puebla (MEX) in 2013, beating Chinese Taipei’s Hsu-Chia Lin 7-0 in the final, and he retained it two years later in Chelyabinsk (RUS), overcoming Russia’s Stanislav Denisov 14-7 in the gold medal bout. In the meantime, Kim also collected the 2014 Asian Games and Asian Championship titles.
Ranked second in the world in the 58kg category – the lowest Olympic weight division – Kim is hoping to fly the flag high for Korean taekwondo in Rio, and is one of the favourites for gold in a category in which Iran’s 19-year-old reigning world champion Farzan Ashourzadeh currently tops the world rankings.
“All the athletes are good, and I’m going to have a lot of rivals,” said Kim, contemplating his prospects in Brazil. “Iran’s men’s team is usually very strong. I’m not sure our generation will be as successful as previous ones, but we’re going to show just how dominant the home of taekwondo is.”
Another firm candidate for 58kg gold in Rio is Portugal’s Rui Bragança, who is ranked third in the world and who took gold in the 2015 European Games in Baku. Also in the mix should be Belgium’s Sid Mohammed Ketbi and Germany’s Levent Tuncat, who are both regulars in the final rounds of major international competitions.
Two years older than Kim, fellow countryman Daehoon Lee claimed the 63kg world crown in 2011 and won Olympic silver in London a year later in the 58kg, losing out to Spain’s Joel Gonzalez Bonilla in the final. A year later in Puebla, he retained his 63kg world title.
As there is no such category in the Olympics, Lee will line up in the 68kg competition in Rio and will do so as the world No1.
“I’m expecting the Koreans to face some very tough bouts, and I think the competition is going to be fierce, so much so that you can’t predict who’s going to win the gold medals,” he said, looking ahead to the Games. “Alexey Denisenko of Russia is right up there at the moment, and though there are a lot of other contenders too, I’m especially wary of him.”
Denisenko finished runner-up in the division at the 2015 World Championships in Chelyabinsk, where he was beaten to gold by Turkey’s Zervet Tazegül, another fighter Lee is expecting to feature prominently in Brazil. Also looming large in the 68kg category will be Lee’s London 2012 conqueror Gonzalez.
Casting his eye over the contenders in the women’s competition at Rio 2016, Lee tipped Great Britain’s Jade Jones, who won the 57kg category at London 2012 and China’s Wu Jungyu, who has won two successive Olympic golds in the 49kg.
Lee went on to say that he and his Korean team-mates had been focusing their preparations for Rio on strength training. “By building up our muscles, our bodies are going to be lighter and quicker,” he explains. “If you carry too much fat, it can make you slow, which is never a good thing. There’s no doubt there’s going to be a lot of pressure, but I think I can enjoy my Games more if I just stay cool.”
Kim and Lee will be hoping to get their preparations just right as they aim to fulfil their billing as Republic of Korea’s strongest medal hopes across the four men’s categories in Rio.