No 32: Chen Zhong

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 July, 2008, 12:00am

Name: Chen Zhong

Date of birth: November 22, 1982 in Jiaozuo, Henan province

Entry for the Beijing Games: Women's taekwondo, 67kg class

Career highlights: Gold medal, 67kg class, 2004 Olympics

Chen Zhong's gold medal in Athens provided the spark that taekwondo needed on the mainland. According to the Beijing Sports Bureau, taekwondo has become the second most popular pastime among Chinese aged 20-35 - behind badminton - yet just five years ago taekwondo aficionados were labelled 'aliens'.

'It is just fantastic, nobody predicted such great changes,' Chen told Beijing Television. 'I remember people always used to ask me if my white uniform was some kind of nightwear.

'We were called aliens because we sometimes went to the post office in our uniform after training.'

It's a different story today. The Chinese Taekwondo Administrative Centre (CTAC) said that in 2007 there were more than 90 social taekwondo clubs in Beijing with another 53 in Shanghai.

Almost all major gyms in Beijing now offer taekwondo courses and the sport even started appearing in fashion magazines after Chen's Athens success.

Though there are other factors that helped taekwondo gain popularity, many people agree that Chen was the decisive trigger that sparked the sport's unprecedented surge in popularity.

'It is a lot of fun to see this happen,' said Chen. 'Taking up taekwondo is not only about fighting. I would like to tell kids and their parents that this is a very healthy sport - good for people both physically and mentally.'

Until the 1990s, taekwondo - and other martial arts disciplines - were considered 'unhealthy'. They were even called 'underground' sports because parents and teachers believed students who learned taekwondo or other martial arts were likely to cause trouble.

But Chen's Olympic gold medal changed all that. That is why millions of young people rush to the mat after work and more parents are starting to see taekwondo as a healthy activity.
'Chen has been a major power in elevating taekwondo to new heights,' said Zhao Lei, deputy director of CTAC.

However, Chen has little time to bask in the limelight. She spends much of her time with the national team, living and training at Beijing's Shi Cha Hai Sports School.
'It's quite funny because people say we are involved in a very modern and fashionable sport, but I don't see that side of it. We all are 100 per cent focused on the Olympics.'

That dedication has paid off. At the Good Luck Beijing 2008 Taekwondo International Invitational Tournament in March, China led the medals table with two golds, four silvers and 10 bronzes in the four-day event. Taekwondo powerhouse Turkey finished second.
'The whole world was surprised by the performances of our athletes,' Zhao said. 'China has now been recognised as a taekwondo power.'