Hundreds of Argentines stop what they are doing and huddle around TV screens. Offices empty out. Every so often shouts and cheers ring out around the streets. What could cause such behaviour? El Superclásico or a vital Pumas game? Or maybe Del Potro’s playing or Maravilla is fighting? But no. It’s taekwondo.
Not many people think of taekwondo when they think of Argentine sport. Yet according to Cesar Favalli, an instructor of the ITF form of taekwondo, martial arts are the second most practised sport in the country, behind football. Taekwondo was the only sport in which an Argentine athlete won a gold medal at the recent Olympics. Sebastian Crismanich won the first taekwondo gold medal in Argentina’s history at the 2012 London Games. So appreciated was his feat, that Luis Scola, a national basketball hero and the man originally selected for the duty, handed Crismanich the honour of carrying the country’s flag at the closing ceremony.
Taekwondo was first brought to Argentina in 1967 by three Koreans who emigrated aboard a Dutch cargo ship. One of the men was Kim Han-Chang who is today considered as the father of Argentine taekwondo. The first Argentine national tournament was held in 1975 and Carlos Ouro was the inaugural champion.
With the 1982 end of the military government came a new sense of freedom to pursue leisure activities, and by 1985 martial arts were becoming very popular in Argentina. So much so that a publication was formed solely devoted to the topic, called ‘Yudo Karate’. Favalli explains why he thinks that taekwondo struck such a chord with people in Argentina. “Throughout our national history, we have passed through many different phases, invasions and crises that have made us a fighting and combative nation.”
He points out that the film industry has also played its part in promoting the benefits of martial arts skills to the general public, “with the likes of Bruce Lee, Van Dame and Chuck Norris in the 70s and 80s, and nowadays with Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Kung Fu Panda”. But taekwondo is about far more than the fancy stunts and board-breaking that you see in the movies.
In many cases Favalli says that today’s youth are drawn to the sport because it serves a practical purpose. “We live in a country where insecurity reigns in the streets and through martial arts young people are given the tools they need to defend themselves.” Above all though, the main attraction of taekwondo is that the sport is about more than just applying yourself physically. In many ways it can be seen as more of a lifestyle choice than a recreational activity. As Favalli puts it, taekwondo involves “body, mind and spirit”.
There are two types of taekwondo practised in Argentina, WTF and ITF. WTF is the form we see in the Olympic Games and most other international tournaments. ITF is centres around self-defence and places greater emphasis on technique and control. In Argentina WTF and ITF are considered as totally different activities, and as a consequence there is little contact between the two formats. Most WTF instructors teach competition-oriented taekwondo in football clubs, inner-city neighbourhoods and government-funded educational institutions, while ITF style, practised by roughly two-thirds of the taekwondo community, is mostly found in gyms and private schools.
The total number of people that have practised taekwondo in Argentina has been estimated at around 500,000. Yet the sport has not often been in the limelight. As Favalli puts it: “Unfortunately, our sport has never received much media attention, only some specialised publications and a few programmes on television. It’s a shame because Argentina is one of the world’s most renowned countries for taekwondo.” Following the success in the Olympics, this is beginning to change.
“They tell me that the final was watched like a football match. With people coming together in their homes, drinking mate and celebrating every shot as if they were goals. I really cannot believe it,” said an elated Crismanich in an interview shortly after his Olympic triumph. His victory well and truly put Argentine taekwondo on the map and as Favalli puts it, everyone in the country now knows that “taekwondo is a martial art and not a type of Chinese food!”
Crismanich’s success demonstrates to all young Argentine taekwondo practitioners that reaching the highest level is a possibility. Favalli believes that his achievement will “inspire other athletes around him.” This was evident at the recent Panamerican taekwondo tournaments held in Bolivia, in which Argentina won one gold, one silver and four bronze medals. Carola López took gold in the women’s flyweight category, illustrating that it’s not just Argentina’s men that are succeeding in the sport.