A blur of hands and feet
First things first: I want to make it clear that I'm not a violent person. I've never been in a fight before, not even with my little brother. The only fighting I ever do involves video game characters and button mashing. I have no particular interest in violent sports such as boxing or MMA (mixed martial arts), so I had absolutely no clue what I was in for when I bravely stepped up and volunteered to try out taekwondo for this story. Seriously, I couldn't even tell it from judo.
But I quickly found out when I stepped foot in the dojang at Polytechnic University.
PolyU's taekwondo team, led by senior instructor Sunny So Shing-lai, has been inter-university champions for the past five years, so they definitely knew what they were doing.
After a brief introduction to the class, the master threw me into the fire and I joined the rest of his team of about 30 athletes to warm up. We went through some running and stretching exercises before moving on to sit-ups and push-ups. It was intense and military-like as we repeatedly performed the move that So Sir assigned.
Then the real fun began. The kicks started flying. First, it was one kick, then two, then three. Next, other combinations were added, such as knees, spinning roundhouses and jumping back kicks. It went like this for what seemed like forever.
After keeping up for the first hour of the two-hour practice, my legs began to feel very heavy. My kicks gradually became slower and lower. I had to step out of the line so I wouldn't slow down the serious athletes awaiting their turn. My training partner for the day, Logan Lau Bing-wang, the black belt champion (bantamweight class) in Hong Kong, explained some of the finer points of the sport.
Taekwondo is a sport of discipline, dedication and concentration. Although it's normally safe, there are elements of danger, especially if you lose your focus in practice and in tournaments. I experienced the importance of this when I had to hold the training paddle for Logan to kick. If I absent-mindedly moved the paddle just as he was about to kick it, he would've undoubtedly shattered my wrist. Even though it was just a practice, everyone was kicking with all their might.
After my breather, it was time for some sparring. My first session was against Logan and I pretty much held my own (OK, yes, because he held back). Then So Sir decided that I should go up against a girl. Before you guys think 'Oh, Leon's such a terrible guy for fighting a girl', this was no ordinary girl. The first thing I noticed was that she was a black belt, so I knew not to take her lightly.
She was definitely more aggressive than Logan, and went at me like I had just told her that the dobok made her look fat. She pulled off a turnaround reverse hook kick that took me by complete surprise and I couldn't do anything except to take the hit. Luckily I was soon saved by the bell as practice was finally over.
Now if anybody asks me about taekwondo, I can confidently tell them that there are rarely any punches or throws - you primarily use kicks. I would also tell them that it's definitely not a silent sport. People were screaming their heads off throughout the entire practice. This is actually encouraged as it can scare your opponent, as well as unite the team (I was silent because I was too freaked out by the screams).
Lastly, it's not just a sport for boys. Among the 30-odd members of the team, about one third was female. And they came in all shapes and sizes. Some were obvious athletes, while others, you would think, would be better suited for the mall than the dojang. But you'd be so wrong.
Although I don't enjoy fighting, I must say that I did feel very cool throwing kicks around. I felt like I was in Street Fighter. I was doing high kicks, kneeing my opponents, and everything. I didn't even know my foot could go that high. Apparently the timing of some of my kicks was pretty good, so maybe I have a future in the sport. I've already got the dobok, so all I need is to work on my screaming.
Additional reporting by YP cadet Erica Lee
The objective of taekwondo is to land punches and kicks to your opponent's 'scoring zones'. Contestants are given one point for attacking the trunk protector (the 'armour' around an athlete's chest); two points for a turning kick to the trunk protector; three points for a valid kick to your opponent's head; and four points for a turning kick to their head.
The contests are made up of three rounds. Each lasts two minutes. The competitors dress in their standard white uniform and wear coloured protective equipment on top - one competitor wears red, the other blue.
If you break the rules in a contest, points can be awarded to your opponent. Stepping outside the boundary, hitting below the waist and attacking using the knee can all be penalised. If an athlete is given four penalty deduction points, the referee will stop the contest and declare the opponent the winner.
At the Olympics, athletes are divided into four weight categories for both men and women.
The Korean sport of taekwondo is based on practices and methods that have been around for more than 2,000 years. The techniques began to be developed by warriors during Korea's Three-Kingdom era, around 50 BC. Taekwondo means, loosely, 'the way of kicking and punching'.
Modern taekwondo was established in the 1950s. The secrets of the sport's ancient practitioners had been handed down through decades of occupation until liberation in 1945. After the Korean War ended in 1953, taekwondo gymnasiums started opening all over South Korea.
Taekwondo made its debut as an Olympic sport at the 2000 Olympics. The only other Asian martial art included in the Games is judo.
chung: the competitor dressed in blue
dobok: standard white, V-necked uniform worn by competitors
dojang: the training hall
hong: the competitor dressed in red
shi-jak: the command to start fighting
gam-jeon: a deduction penalty
twi-o cha-gi: a jump kick
dui-hooryo cha-gi: a spin whip kick
pyon-joomock chi-gi: a knuckle fist punch
Ones to watch:
The American athlete, 33, started his sporting career at the age of five. Lopez was the first man ever to win five consecutive gold medals in world championships.
His two siblings also won gold medals at the world championships in 2005, making them the first three siblings ever to do so. Lopez hopes to win the men's -80kg category.
Japanese student Erika Kasahara, 21, took home a silver medal in the women's flyweight -49kg class at the 2010 Asian Taekwondo Championships. She was originally a karateka (since her father is a karate coach), but changed to taekwondo in 2007, at the age of 16. She will be competing in the women's -49kg category.
The 32-year-old Greek was the very first bearer of the torch in the relay for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He won silver in both Athens and Beijing in the +80kg category. So he will surely aim for gold in what is likely to be his final Games.
-58kg medal event: August 8, 10.30pm (August 9, 5.30am in HK)
-68kg medal event: August 9, 10.30pm (August 10, 5.30am in HK)
-80kg medal event: August 10, 10.30pm (August 11, 5.30am in HK)
+80kg medal event: August 11, 10.30pm (August 12, 5.30am in HK)
-49kg medal event: August 8,
10.15pm (August 9, 5.15am in HK)
-57kg medal event: August 9,
10.15pm (August 10, 5.15am in HK)
-67kg medal event: August 10,
10.15pm (August 11, 5.15am in HK)
+67kg medal event: August 11,
10.15pm (August 12, 5.15am in HK)
Taekwondo in Hong Kong:
Wan Kam Leung Practical Wing Chun Kung Fu International
Address: 1/F, Front, 456 Nathan Road, Yau Ma Tei, Kowloon
Telephone: 8197 3297
International Wing Chun Organisation
Address: M/F Hong Mei Building, 135 Lai Chi Kok Road, Kowloon
Telephone: 8100 3137
Korea Taekwondo Cheung Do Kwan
Address: 3/F Concord Commercial Building, 155-157 King's Road, North Point
Telephone: 3482 8461
Special thanks to Hong Kong Polytechnic University taekwondo team