Patrick Burke

The timing of this year's World Taekwondo General Assembly before the World Championships was no coincidence. May 28 marked 50 years to the day that it was founded as the World Taekwondo Federation in South Korea's capital Seoul, and preceded a seven-day showcase of a sport now firmly established on the Olympic programme. Indeed, it is established to the extent that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been firmly involved in the 50-year celebrations.

Celebration has been the name of the game from the start of delegates and participants at the World Championships arriving in Azerbaijan's capital. The gala dinner on May 27, the eve of the Championships, marked a double celebration at the Heydar Aliyev Center.

The following day marked Azerbaijan's Independence Day, denoting their declaration of independence from the Russian Empire in 1918.

The venue for the gala dinner is named after former President Aliyev, the father of Ilham Aliyev who has been head of state since 2003 and National Olympic Committee President since 1997. Construction was hosted at a time when Azerbaijan was enjoyed economic boom through oil and gas revenue and seeking to establish Baku as a trusted host of international events. In the realm of sport, this brought accusations of attempted sportswashing on the part of the authoritarian Aliyev regime.

Heydar Aliyev was Azerbaijan's President from 1993 to 2003, and commemorations to the former leader on what would have been his 100th birthday last month can be seen all over Baku.

For host nation and International Federation, marking history has proved an important part of these World Championships.

World Taekwondo honoured its 17 founding members - South Korea, Cambodia, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, the United States, Austria, Germany, Ivory Coast and Uganda - at the gala dinner.

What it has described as the "best of the best" athletes since the sport made its Olympic debut at Sydney 2000 also received special prizes. This covered the top male and female player from each edition of the Games through to Tokyo 2020, as well as taekwondo's Paralympic debut in the Japanese capital, selected by an Ad-Hoc Nomination Committee.

Greece's Michail Mouroutsos and South Korea's Jung Jae-eun took the honours for Sydney 2000, with Athens 2004 prizes going to Chu Mu-Yen of Chinese Taipei and Chen Zhong of China. From Beijing 2008, Hadi Saei of Iran and Wu Jingyu of China were winners, and Servet Tazegül of Turkey and Hwang Kyung-seon of South Korea at London 2012. The best from Rio 2016 were named as Cheick Sallah Cissé of Ivory Coast and Jade Jones of Britain, while for Tokyo 2020 that tag was reserved for Ulugbek Rashitov of Uzbekistan and Milica Mandić of Serbia. Paralympic champions Nathan Torquato of Brazil and Denmark's women's under-58kg champion Lisa Gjessing completed the list of winners.

Vice-president Ng Ser Miang of Singapore provided an IOC presence at the gala dinner.

A group of 14 legendary champions from the Olympics and Paralympics were honoured at the World Taekwondo 50th anniversary gala dinner ©World Taekwondo
A group of 14 legendary champions from the Olympics and Paralympics were honoured at the World Taekwondo 50th anniversary gala dinner ©World Taekwondo

World Taekwondo President Chungwon Choue recalled the evening's experience fondly as part of the governing body's Golden Jubilee celebrations.

"This year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary," the South Korean told insidethegames. "We arranged a gala dinner, we awarded 14 best of best male and female athletes since Sydney. We were very happy because it was historical, and also we made a recognition of 17 founding nations. Afterwards the drone show was amazing, the first time we had that during the World Taekwondo Championships."

Of the 33 members of the Associations of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF), only the International Modern Pentathlon Union's Klaus Schormann of Germany from 1993, International Surfing Association's Fernando Aguerre of Argentina from 1994 and International Handball Federation's Hassan Moustafa of Egypt from 2000 have led their sports longer than Choue.

Choue was elected in 2004 as only the second President in World Taekwondo's history - he has led the organisation for 19 of its 50 years in existence, with compatriot Kim Un-yong at the helm for the other 31.

Kim was a controversial figure.

In 2001, he narrowly failed to be elected as President of the IOC, finishing second in the vote in Moscow behind Belgium's Jacques Rogge.

But Kim was later forced to resign as a member of the IOC after he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for embezzlement and bribery charges.

Kim died in October 2017 at the age of 86.

"Twenty years, is it really 20 years?" a stunned Choue asks when quizzed for his reflections on World Taekwondo's history during his time at the helm.

Choue opened a World Taekwondo General Assembly for the 21st time as President last week on the day of its anniversary, having made the gathering of member associations an annual event.

The General Assembly revealed the extent to which World Taekwondo wants to go big on its 50th anniversary celebrations. The annual report showed a projected $206,423 (£165,795/€192,458) allocated for 2023 on such projects, from total expenses of over $12.4 million (£10 million/€11.6 million).

It marked the addition of a 213th member association as Namibia had its application approved. From the original 17 founders and 174 members when Choue became President, World Taekwondo is proud of the progress it has made in expanding its reach globally. It has three more to target though, including North Korea despite the challenges provided by the uneasy relationship with its southern neighbour on the Peninsula and its links to the rival International Taekwon-Do Federation.

"I am happy that Namibia joined our World Taekwondo," Choue explained. "There are three missing countries - one more in Africa, Eritrea, one from Europe, Liechtenstein, and one from Asia, North Korea, and we are working very hard to bring them all to our umbrella," 

"One sport taekwondo. There can be many branches of taekwondo, but the sport taekwondo is one, so no matter what the athletes practise, sport taekwondo should be one we are embracing all the different taekwondo people and athletes from around the world,"

Namibia was approved as World Taekwondo's 213th member at the General Assembly in Baku, held 50 years to the day it was founded with 17 members ©World Taekwondo
Namibia was approved as World Taekwondo's 213th member at the General Assembly in Baku, held 50 years to the day it was founded with 17 members ©World Taekwondo

The General Assembly also featured an IOC contribution to the 50th anniversary celebrations in the form of a video message from President Thomas Bach.

"As you celebrate this milestone you can look back at 50 years of great progress," Bach said. "Starting with only 17 Member Associations 50 years ago you made your Olympic debut at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000. Since then you have not stopped growing and developing your sport.

"In this context, I would like to in particular highlight the outstanding achievements having been accomplished under the great leadership of your President Choue. He has made taekwondo one of the fastest, if not the fastest, growing sport in the world which is now a truly global sport.

"As your 213 Member Associations today underline in an impressive way, taekwondo now enjoys worldwide appeal. In this way you are bringing together people all over the world in peaceful competition, thereby promoting our shared Olympic values."

Bach praised the Taekwondo Humanitarian Foundation's (THF) work supporting refugees, and in that regard the World Championships has provided a landmark moment. A Refugee Team of 13 athletes competing in Baku included for the first time one from the Azraq Camp in Jordan, where one of the THF's main and longest-running projects is based.

Syrian refugee Yehya Al Ghotani lost to Mexico's Carlos Navarro in the men's under-63 kilograms round of 64, but his participation has been billed as an historic moment for World Taekwondo.

"I am really happy to have the first time ever a large group of Refugee Team for this World Taekwondo Championships, especially one Refugee Athlete from the Azraq Camp in Jordan," Choue said.

"He is very talented but he needs some experience of Kyorugi.

"This is a big group of refugee athletes, but we are always saying we have 213 plus one member nations, since we incubated the Taekwondo Humanitarian Foundation in 2016. Since then we must say plus one because World Taekwondo is the leading international sports federation to support refugee athletes."

"Plus-one" is something time and time again at a taekwondo event. ASOIF President Francesco Ricci Bitti of Italy is among the leading administrators to praise the THF's work for displaced people around the world.

Refugee Team Athlete Yehya Al Ghotani, right, became the first player to compete at the World Championships from the THF's flagship Azraq Camp project ©World Taekwondo
Refugee Team Athlete Yehya Al Ghotani, right, became the first player to compete at the World Championships from the THF's flagship Azraq Camp project ©World Taekwondo

Serving the needs of refugees is an area Choue insists he takes very seriously.

"We built sports facilities, but this is not only for taekwondo," he said. That's why I open arms for International Sports Federations. If you want to teach your sports to refugee children, most welcome. That’s why I signed the Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) with many other international sports federations, at the moment we have nine MoUs, most of them are Olympic sports and a few non-Olympic sports.

"Last year we arranged the Hopes and Dreams Taekwondo Championships. It was a competition between Azraq Camp, Zaatari Camp and also in the city itself there are some refugees practising taekwondo. It was very successful, they are very happy.

"Azraq Camp was built in 2014, so most boys and girls are born there and raised there, they had never been outside of the camp before, they were so happy.

"Because of the successful launching of the Hopes and Dreams Taekwondo Championships, this year at the end of February we organised with some other sports including baseball5 who are willing to spend some coaches and equipment.

"This time I invited Francesco Ricci Bitti the ASOIF President who joined us, and he was so impressed. I told him we should expand with more sports, so after the World Taekwondo Championships I am going to contact with the other MoU IFs to join us next year.

"If it's realised, that will be a good example of how sports can contribute to human society."

The work of the THF is among World Taekwondo's biggest highlights from the last 50 years, but as an International Federation it is still tasked with staging major competitions, including its second World Championships in the space of around six months in Baku.

This year's competition has featured athletes from 144 countries and a spread of the medals, with South Korea and Turkey leading on three golds but five other nations having victories to their name and a further 17 having medalled in some capacity.

World Taekwondo's second President Chungwon Choue has led the governing body for 19 of the 50 years of its existence ©World Taekwondo
World Taekwondo's second President Chungwon Choue has led the governing body for 19 of the 50 years of its existence ©World Taekwondo

A big talking point has largely been World Taekwondo's decision to follow IOC guidelines on Russia and Belarus, allowing their athletes to compete as neutrals provided they passed a three-step verification process to examine any military links or support for the war in Ukraine. Russian Olympic champions Maksim Khramtsov and Vladislav Larin failed this process and had applications to compete rejected, but 14 Russian and nine Belarusian athletes were cleared to participate under a neutral banner.

This decision prompted a boycott from Ukraine, and Bach was at Baku Crystal Hall yesterday for the evening session to watch a Russian neutral in Liliia Khuzina take gold in the women's under-62kg.

Choue has claimed he is "really saddened" by Ukraine's absence but has defended World Taekwondo's support for its athletes and decision on Russia and Belarus, claiming "sports and politics should be clearly separated".

It has also been confirmed the three-step verification process used in Baku would remain in place for forthcoming World Taekwondo events.

How does the President feel this World Championships marking 50 years has gone as a whole?

"The quality is I would say 8.5 or nine [out of 10]," Choue reflected. "There were some minor mistakes, but I think I am really pleased."

He pointed to social media figures showing 22.7 million views of the hashtag #Bku2023WTC on TikTok and more than 1.6 million unique Instagram livestream views over the first six days as a highlight.

Russian and Belarusian athletes including women's under-62kg gold medallist Liliia Khuzina, second left, have been permitted to compete as individual neutrals at the World Taekwondo Championships, but this prompted a boycott from Ukraine ©World Taekwondo
Russian and Belarusian athletes including women's under-62kg gold medallist Liliia Khuzina, second left, have been permitted to compete as individual neutrals at the World Taekwondo Championships, but this prompted a boycott from Ukraine ©World Taekwondo

One of the issues highlighted by Choue was "human error" from referees, and he admitted the video review system is "not working 100 per cent".

The World Taekwondo President claimed video reviews would work more efficiently at Paris 2024 because of 4D cameras and the use of an aerial camera.

Work is ongoing to reduce refereeing errors, which Choue insisted taekwondo was not alone as a sport in facing.

"I think it is about the same in terms of human errors [compared to previous World Championships], but the coaches are more sensitive because it is the year before the Olympic Games," Choue said.

"It will be corrected very soon. We are going to select the best of the best international referees after the Grand Prix Final, we will finalise the 26 Olympic referees.

"At the beginning of next year we are going to organise a special training camp for referees."

After a week which Bach described as "the most fitting way to celebrate 50 years of the Federation", attention must turn to the future for World Taekwondo.

One of the plans that Choue is most excited discussing is that for a taekwondo statue outside the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. He describes it as the "highlight of our golden jubilee".

He is set to have the opportunity to have a first glimpse of the figure to mark World Taekwondo's 50th anniversary at the Grand Prix in Rome next week, and plans are on track for it to be unveiled on November 15 at 11.30am.

"Commemorating the 50th anniversary of World Taekwondo, I talked to the IOC people about having a World Taekwondo statue in front of the Olympic Museum, which we are very happy about having," Choue said.

"The statue is now under construction in Rome, so during the Grand Prix Roma I would like to visit the site to see myself, and afterwards it will move from Rome to Lausanne in the middle of November."

Plans for a taekwondo statue at the Olympic Museum have been described by World Taekwondo President Chungwon Choue as the
Plans for a taekwondo statue at the Olympic Museum have been described by World Taekwondo President Chungwon Choue as the "highlight of our golden jubilee" ©ITG

On the major competitions front, taekwondo's seventh consecutive Olympic Games appearance in Paris next year is set to be followed by a second at the Paralympics, with the number of medal events increasing from three to five per category.

The Grand Palais will provide an iconic venue for taekwondo events at Paris 2024 and is something that has left Choue looking forward to the Olympics with great anticipation.

"We are very excited having taekwondo competition in the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games and the venue the Grand Palais, which is very historical and very centrally located," he said.

"I think test event will be in mid-August and will be another successful taekwondo competition. We changed the competition rules and regulations to our best-of-three rounds systems, and we are going to use more high-skilled video cameras and also a ceiling video camera. It will be much shorter for the review jury's decision, and a dynamic Games so I am ready to go.

"I am especially very happy about the decision of International Paralympic Committee to expand more weight categories for Para taekwondo so instead of three and three it's five and five, so there are 10 medals events in the Paralympic Games."

The next edition of the World Taekwondo Championships - without the added bonus of a 50th anniversary as 52nd anniversary does not quite have the same ring to it - has been awarded to Wuxi for 2025 at a Council meeting in Baku. A total of 14 of the 26 votes went to the Chinese city, which staved off competition from Bulgari's capital Sofia, Croatia's capital Zagreb and Charlotte in the United States.

Wuxi had initially been due to host the 2021 World Championships, but this was delayed and later moved to Guadalajara in Mexico last year because of China's tough COVID-19 restrictions.

Choue, who did not vote, felt Wuxi being able to stage a World Championships after missing out was important, but not the only factor in its success.

"That's one reason, and also they planned to build a taekwondo gymnasium in Wuxi next to the convention centre which is a very good location," he said.

"I was there last April when there was a chance to see the Grand Slam event in Wuxi very close to the convention centre, a nice venue just for taekwondo.

"It's nothing to do with me, the decision was made by our Council and I respect by the Council's decision.

"China presented a full explanation of missing the World Taekwondo Championships in 2020. The Chinese teams explained to the Council they really wanted to have another World Taekwondo Championships as they promised, so the Council decided."

Chungwon Choue believes poomsae is
Chungwon Choue believes poomsae is "another territory to develop and to introduce to the world" ©World Taekwondo

Outside of the Olympic Games and World Championships, World Taekwondo has plans to develop its other disciplines, notably poomsae and virtual taekwondo.

"It is one of the exciting moments that this month in Singapore, virtual taekwondo is at the Olympic Esports Week," Choue said. "I will be there.

"We started virtual taekwondo in 2019 just before the Manchester World Taekwondo Championships.

"The first time we had a showcase for the public in Manchester, at that time Thomas Bach watched the virtual taekwondo and was very interested.

"In 2028, we are going to develop virtual taekwondo more details and show to the world it can help you be strong, get your body moving and be exercising.

"Poomsae is also getting popular. So many multi-sports Games like the Asian Games, Panam Games and African Games accepted poomsae taekwondo as a medal event, and also it was in the Universaide several years ago.

"Poomsae is another area to develop and we started to develop the beach poomsae. Forget about the taekwondo uniform, just whatever you want to wear you can wear and perform with the music.

"Poomsae is another territory to develop and to introduce to the world."

Choue has shared he wants to target further humanitarian work for the remainder of his fifth term as President.

For World Taekwondo, this was a World Championships with a celebration of 50 years of history,  but now the focus turns to moving the sport forward.