Road To The Olympic Games

Rooted in Korean history

Examining taekwondo's beginnings in Korea and its debut at the 1988 Olympic Games.

The birthplace of modern taekwondo, Korea introduced the martial art to the Olympic program at the 1988 Seoul Games

Women's taekwondo action from the 2000 Sydney Games, where the sport debuted as a regular part of the Olympic Games. ((Franck Fife/Getty Images))

Taekwondo is either 47 years old or 2000 years old, depending on your point of view. The name "taekwondo" ("the way of the hands and feet") was formalized, and its rules finalized, in 1957. But the roots of the sport reach far back into Korea's history: royal tomb murals from the ancient Koguryo Dynasty depict two men competing in an activity that looks similar to taekwondo. 

Top countries at Athens Olympics

South Korea: 2 gold, 2 bronze

Taiwan: 2 gold, 1 silver

China: 2 gold

USA: 1 gold, 1 silver

Iran: 1 gold, 1 bronze

Greece: 2 silver

France: 1 silver, 1 bronze

Mexico: 1 silver, 1 bronze 


The martial arts have long been an integral part of Korean culture. During the 13th century, they reached an all-time peak when su-bak, a form of self-defense that also closely resembles modern taekwondo, became popular among the masses. It was a compulsory course in military training, and public su-bak competitions became popular entertainment. 

Su-bak was little-known outside Korea, however, and by the first half of the 20th century it had almost disappeared. The Japanese forces that occupied Korea in the 1930s and 1940s banned it outright for fear it would encourage popular resistance. Apparently a cultural heritage of martial arts could be dangerous for an occupying power. 

When Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule after the Second World War, its martial arts were revitalized. The numerous variations of the sport were unified by a code system in 1957 by a group of Korean martial artists, which in turn led to the creation of the Korean Taekwondo Federation four years later. 

Taekwondo takes hold

By the early 1960s, Korean soldiers and police officers were learning the art, and over the next decade, South Korean emigrants contributed to the global promotion of taekwondo. The first world championships were held in Seoul in May 1973 and attracted competitors from 19 countries. This event spurred the creation of the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF). 

South Korea's taekwondo dominance continued in Athens, where Moon Dae-Sung won gold in the men's heavyweight class. ((Joel Saget/Getty Images) )

The WTF became an IOC-recognized sports federation in 1980, making taekwondo eligible to become an Olympic sport. Taekwondo was recognized as an official event at the World Games in 1981 and the Pan American Games in 1986. 

Taekwondo finally made its Olympic debut as a demonstration sport at the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea. Fittingly, the South Koreans dominated, winning three of the four gold medals awarded. The fourth gold went to American Arlene Limas, who competed in the welterweight division. 

Taekwondo was one of three new official sports introduced at the 2000 Sydney Games, along with triathlon and trampoline. Again, South Korea was the top country, taking three of the eight gold medals in men's and women's competition. Dominique Bosshart made Canada's presence felt with a well-deserved bronze medal after a gritty performance through the tournament. 

Bosshart wasn't thought of as a top contender going into Sydney, but it wasn't a total shock that Canada would win a taekwondo medal. After all, between 1992 and 1996, when it was still a demonstration sport, Canadians won three silver and two bronze medals — part of a Canadian tradition of excelling at new Olympic sports.  

At the Athens 2004 Summer Games, China and South Korea won two gold medals apiece, accounting for half of the gold medals handed out in taekwondo competition at the Games.

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