Taekwondo, the Korean martial art with a dizzying array of twisting and chopping kicks, made its Paralympic debut in Japan. The Games ended on Sunday, with 68 athletes from 35 countries participating in taekwondo under the klay lights in a large Assembly Hall just outside Tokyo.
In many other sports, Paralympic athletes from wealthier countries tend to have an advantage, as their performance may depend on technology such as modified wheelchairs or prosthetic running blades. But just like the Olympics, taekwondo has a democratizing effect because it doesn’t require expensive equipment or large training facilities. Countries like Croatia and Egypt, both of which won relatively few medals at the Games with seven apiece, had athletes on the podium in taekwondo. The only athlete to win a medal at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo from Peru was Leonor Espinoza Carranza, who won a gold medal in the women’s under 49 kilograms.
The matches, which are short and explosive, take place on an octagonal platform, with the athletes wearing vests embedded with electronic sensors that can track the precision of the kicks that yield points. This innovation, said Chungwon Choue, the president of World Taekwondo, makes taekwondo one of the “most fair and transparent sports.”
“It reduces human error in judging,” said Choue, who noted that the scoring process was equitable in another way: Referees are split equally between men and women.
Taekwondo attracted extra attention when it made its debut as one of the contestants, Zakia Khudadadi, 22, was an Afghan athlete who made a dramatic breakaway from Kabul to reach Tokyo. Khudadadi lost her two matches.
In an effort to expand the sport, World Taekwondo has established a separate foundation to introduce the martial art to refugee camps in Djibouti, Jordan, Rwanda and Turkey. A refugee from a camp in Rwanda, Parfait Hakizimana, originally from Burundi, took part in the Tokyo Games.
When taekwondo made its Paralympic debut, it streamlined the categories in which athletes compete and consolidated several disability classifications. For some athletes competing against lighter handicapped rivals, the competition has been particularly fierce. “Of course it’s a bit messy because all the classes have come together,” said Viktoriia Marchuk of Ukraine after winning a match against Khudadadi. “But my dream has come true, and I’m very happy to be here.”