Taekwondo vs. the Traditional Martial Arts

In the comments on poetloverrebelspy’s post about the Olympics, laikal and I got off on a tangent about martial arts in the summer Olympics. He (foolishly) stated that one of the reasons he prefers the Winter Games to the Summer ones is, “they actually put the Biathlon on tv, whereas they mostly try to pretend that the summer martial arts (fencing, judo, karate) don’t exist (mostly ’cause they suck).” I naturally responded in defense of karate, which he expected, given that I taught the karate class back when we were in college. He later noted, “Karate is, I guess, just a “demonstration sport” — it’s Taekwondo that’s official.” Which led me to begin a monologue on why the two are often viewed quite differently, at which point I realized I should just write a post. And here it is.

So, first of all, let’s look at the official Olympic sport information.* Indeed, judo and Taekwondo are the two Eastern martial arts listed. Karate shows up on the list of recognised sports.** I’m not terribly surprised by this, as much as I love, and indeed prefer, traditional karate over Taekwondo. Here’s what it comes down to, in my mind: Taekwondo is a sport. Karate is still a martial art.

I’ve recently started back to taking classes at an actual school, and so just this past Tuesday, I was having a discussion with some of the other people who have been in the karate world for a while about tournament culture in the US. A lot of these kinds of discussions end up focusing on the Taekwondo vs. traditional divide.

For those who have never been to a martial arts tournament, tournaments have two main divisions of competition, kata and kumite. Kata are the performed sets of movements, which you can relate sort of to a dance or gymnastics routine, except all the movements are designed to either defend or attack. (Given that I came into karate from ballet, this is the part I like best.) The kumite division is the sparring part, where you wear all the padded gear and hit each other to score points. (You can probably tell from my tone that I don’t particularly care for this bit.) A lot of tournaments also have a separate division for weapons kata, and some have a team kata competition, but it’s all still kata. The kata competition is arguably the most definitive area of competition, because this is where pure technique, control, and style all come out clearly, and also where you can see the differences between styles best.

Back in the day, when I still went to tournaments, our school (a traditional Okinawan style) would go to local opens, and they were incredibly dominated by Taekwondo schools. The kids’ kata competition takes a lot of judges, because it’s usually divided up by both ages and ranks, and sometimes gender, so the likelihood of getting a panel of only Taekwondo judges from the available judging pool was high. I never won. Most of the time, no one from our school did, unless their division had been really small. To the TKD judges, our stuff just didn’t look that impressive. When I won first place in a tournament of only schools in my own style, I figured I had proven myself and never competed again, because I was so tired of how pointless it seemed, being traditional in a Taekwondo world.

This new school seems to go to mostly national karate tournaments, and they tend to do very well with their traditional kata performance. (As they should; they have this trio of sickeningly talented teenage siblings who are just freakin’ amazing. But I digress.) I was talking to the Talented Trio’s mom and the wife of the sensei, and they said that those kinds of tournaments are quite different from open tournaments. While Taekwondo people do go to those, they don’t dominate, and the traditional styles tend to actually do better than the TKDers, presumably due to a more serious focus on quality in judging. They also said that some of these tournaments actually separate the competition along the TKD/traditional divide, so they’re not even really in the same tournament anymore.

By contrast, when this school goes to local opens, the sensei says to the students, “Okay, throw another kick in this part, some extra punches and stuff here, kiai whenever you feel like, and do it fast. Have fun!” He knows the judges are all likely to be TKD. They’re looking for flash, for speed, for sport. It’s not a martial arts tournament anymore at that point. It’s just non-serious sporting.

(I hope his younger students are getting the distinction, because there was nothing more annoying than taking the competition seriously and getting scored low for being too technical. I once watched my brother perform a kata as fast as he could, with multiple mistakes, and win his small division because the judges didn’t know the difference, but at least it was fast! Grrrr… *deep breaths* Moving on.)

So, to get back to the original point, I’m not surprised that Taekwondo is the official Olympic sport, as opposed to karate. Taekwondo is a more recent phenomenon, it’s been heavily marketed and spread throughout the world in the past century, and it has a centralized officiating body in Korea. Traditional karate, on the other hand, encompasses a large number of individual styles, some very similar to one another, others not at all, and has had hundreds of years, in some cases, to spread and vary and become decentralized. These traditional styles in general all have a much stronger emphasis on perfection of art than most Taekwondo schools I’ve seen. Which is why I now see TKD as a sport, and therefore in something of a different category. They’re in a better position to market themselves to the Olympics, and that’s fine. I’m honestly not sure I really want to see karate in the Olympics, because the necessary centralized rules imposed on it would probably do away with a lot of the subtle variations that abound in the tournament karate world as it is.

So ends my rambling explanation of the cultural differences of the two main martial arts categories in the US.

*Look at how many more official summer sports there are! That’s ridiculous. Seriously, all of the Winter Games just consist of variations on the theme of skating and skiing. That’s kind of depressing.

**Oh, look, my spelling’s gone all British.

-posted by Dana


10 Responses to Taekwondo vs. the Traditional Martial Arts

  1. rachel says:

    I want to be on your side and try to make some distinctions. With the caveat that tkd is my art.

    The main distinction is between the sport and the art of tkd. There are schools, including both of the ones I’ve been involved in, that are traditional. Tae Kwon Do was promoted heavily, but it is rooted in deep traditions that include hapkido, weapons arts. Learning these holistically and combined with philosophy is the only way to go. The sport of TKD is just that. A sport. No additional knowledge necessary (although you might find that the best in the sport DO have that additional knowledge).

    The problem with TKD is that none of us who are actually into the martial arts can get around the image (and reality) of what gets called TKD in America. I would daresay that the TKD that most people, especially those involved in other arts, imagine is not even the TKD that is purveyed by either of the international governing bodies.

    I would beg you to make the distinction between either traditional and sport, or traditional and commercial, acknowledging that the same could be true for Karate, Ju-Jitsu (ask some of those folks how they feel about BJJ) or any art.

  2. Dana says:

    Certainly, Rachel. I knew a TKD person was going to make that point. Back when I was going to tournaments, I suspect TKD was very commercial around here. Maybe it’s grown enough now to have some more traditional schools now, too. I hope so.

    Have you ever watched any of the Olympic TKD? Where do you think it falls, sport or traditional?

  3. rachel says:

    In between. I’ve always sucked at sparring, even though my first master was a medalist in the pan-am games and olympic contender (in 1980? 1984?, when TKD was first a demonstration sport). Mainly, I suck because I can’t bring myself to do the sporty things that make you win.

    I also suck now (in addition to being out of shape) because I know hapkido and yudo and all of the rest of it, and really, really don’t even understand the sport fighting anymore. It is totally different than what I know.

    That being said, if I’m not totally mistaken (and I’m not going to look it up), I believe there is a poomse (form) component to the Olympic Competition. I’ve always attended schools that wouldn’t let you compete in tournaments unless you did both. There are some different schools. For instance, when I went to nationals I fought a “black belt” from a fighting school – they just fight, that’s it. She wasn’t really a black belt, but she sure did TKO me. Which is fine. On the street, I win. In a competition about the history and philosophy of the art, I win. On speaking Korean, eating Korean food, and having dignity and respect in a traditional way, I win.

    I’m afraid it is probably even more commercial now, with ATA. Which is why I don’t currently have a school. Which is why I might pick up another art.

  4. Dana says:

    All fighting school = my worst nightmare. Yikes. Why don’t they just do kickboxing?

    I think part of my fear with martial arts in the Olympics is that there will be such a strong emphasis on the sparring aspect, and not much on the kata/poomse/form aspect, which, as I mentioned, I think is the more important part. As laikal noted in the comment that started all of this, sparring for points with pads is inherently contrived. As you said, on the street, you’d win vs. someone who only knows how to spar for points.

    Hmmm, sadly, looking at the IOC Taekwondo info, I’m not encouraged to think they do have a form competition. They say they have 4 weight classes for men and women, with competition in the form of a single-elimination tournament. How depressing.

  5. […] on karate in the Olympics Oh, the irony. Not more than an hour after I posted about the differences between Taekwondo and karate and why I didn’t mind if karate wasn’t included in the Olympics, I picked up the free […]

  6. […] Taekwondo vs. the Traditional Martial Arts […]

  7. TKDFan says:

    I started taekwondo at age 42 and love it!

  8. comedaydreamwithme says:

    Dana is right ….. If TKD vs karate , there will be 99.99% that karate wins . If TKD fight like the karate style , then TKD might win .

  9. I’m not sure where you are getting your info, but good topic.
    I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more.
    Thanks for magnificent information I was looking for this
    info for my mission.

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