Road To The Olympic Games

Head shots

Rules of play associated with taekwondo at the Olympic level, where the head is often a target.

Punches have to land between the waist and neck, but when it comes to kicking, the whole body — including the head — is fair game in taekwondo

Zhang Chen of China gets a shot in the face from Brazil's Natalia Silva during the women's 67 kg semifinal match at the Athens Games. ((Donald Miralle/Getty Images))


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Taekwondo requires all kinds of toughness. The sport demands power, precision, balance and discipline while two combatants kick and punch each other. On top of the physical aspect, mental toughness is a key component. 

Athletes need tremendous mental focus. They are out on the mats by themselves without a coach or trainer. While they can prepare for a fight beforehand, strategies change on the fly and the only person who can help the athlete in the "ring" is him or herself. This is where the power of concentration developed by martial arts training comes into play. 

On the mat

The taekwondo competition area is a two-colour mat measuring 12 metres square. The competition takes place on a 10x10m inner square, called the contest area, while the red outer part of the mat is called the alert zone. 

Before the match, the athletes bow to each other to signal respect. The referee starts the match by saying "Joon-bi" (ready) and "shi-jak" (start). 

The action unfolds over three rounds lasting two minutes. Two combatants – "Chung" (blue) and "Hong" (red) – go at each other with kicks and punches, taking a one-minute breather between rounds, where they can confer with their coach and change strategies if necessary.

After the match, the competitors face each other again in the competition area and exchange a bow at the referee's command. They then wait for the referee's signal; the referee will raise one arm towards the victorious athlete in order to indicate a victory. A win can also be declared when there is a knockout, when the referee stops the contest by virtue of a 7 point gap or a 12 point ceiling, or when a competitor is disqualified. 

The score

A referee oversees the match, which is scored by three judges. As in judo, points are awarded for each successful attack that is executed with the proper balance, power and technique. This means that a punch or kick must be sufficiently powerful to either move or stop an opponent, while the attacker maintains good balance and form. 

Canada's Dominique Bosshart delivers a kick during the Sydney Games, where she won a bronze medal. ((Robert Cianflone/Getty Images) )

You can't just kick and flail anywhere at your opponent. To score a point, the blow must land on specific target areas. Punches have to hit the front of the body between the waist and the base of the neck (excluding the throat). The target area for foot attacks includes the head, as well as the body. 

"In the movies, what you see is some sort of violence or self-defense, and taekwondo is a self-defense martial art, but it is more than that," says David Silverman of the Ontario Taekwondo Association. "It has dexterity, technique and power. It's not about the brute force, but the dynamics that make our sport beautiful."

If a combatant staggers or falls after receiving a blow to the head, the referee will stop the match and resume it after an 8-second count. If an 8-second count is reached after a head shot, the attacking athlete is automatically given a third point. If one of the fighters can't continue, his or her opponent is given the victory by knockout. Otherwise, the outcome is decided on points.  

If the two athletes are tied after three rounds in regular competition, the winner is the fighter who earns more points. In the finals, a tied match goes to sudden death, and the first combatant to earn one point wins. The Beijing Games will mark the first time this sudden death rule is used in Olympic competition.  

A mercy rule will also apply in Beijing, where an athlete leading a match by seven points will be determined the winner. The Games will also feature a 12-point ceiling, so the first athlete to 12 points wins the match.  

Taekwondo moves

Style and degree of difficulty count for a lot in Taekwondo, with the more aggressive and difficult moves scoring the highest points. For example, kicks to the head earn two points, whereas kicks to the body earn one point. Such moves include:

Austria's Tuncay Caliskan, right, celebrates after knocking out Bertrand Gbongou Liango of the Central African Republic at the 2004 Olympic Games. ((Marco Longari/Getty Images) )
  • knockdowns
  • foot techniques versus hand techniques
  • jumping kicks versus standing kicks
  • kicks to the head versus kicks to the body 

For all the kicking and punching, taekwondo puts a premium on fair play. Just as a point is awarded for each legitimate hit, a point can be deducted for penalties. Penalties are issued in two ways: as a warning (kyong-go) or as a deduction (gam-jeom). Two warnings or one deduction are counted as a loss of one point. A deduction of four points means the offending competitor is disqualified. 

Penalties are common in taekwondo. A typical combatant's score for a match is five to seven points with one deduction. 

Violations include:

  • grabbing, holding, or pushing your opponent
  • avoiding your opponent, fleeing the competition area or feigning injury
  • attacking the groin
  • attacking with the knee
  • intentionally punching the face
  • throwing your opponent 

For further protection, competitors wear a uniform called a "dobok," consisting of a thick, loose-fitting jacket and pants, along with a chest protector called a "hogu." The chest protector is coloured either red (chung) or blue (hong) and is worn outside the dobok. 

Other protective gear includes a mouth guard, a helmet, groin and forearm protection, and shin guards, all worn inside the dobok. To some extent, you're attacking your opponent's equipment, not the person. 

The weight disadvantage 

In most major international competitions, there are eight different weight categories for both men and women, but in the Olympic Games, there are only four, much broader categories. The upshot is that it's harder for lighter fighters to qualify for the Olympics when their opponents may be used to fighting heavier, stronger competition. 

Olympic weight classes:
  • Flyweight – Men under 58kg, women under 49 kg
  • Featherweight – Men under 68kg, women under 57kg
  • Welterweight – Men under 80kg, women under 67kg
  • Heavyweight – Men more than 80kg, women more than 67kg 

Once they get to the Olympics, a fighter on the low end of the weight class could face opponents up to 10 kilograms heavier. The weight discrepancy can be a factor because points are not only scored by accuracy of kicks and punches, but also by power and speed of kicks and punches. 

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