Taekwondo became an official Olympic sport just five Games ago in 2000, and while it’s protected on the Olympic docket until 2020, it’s not a given after then. The sport is facing pressure from the IOC to modernize itself, much like wrestling and modern pentathlon, which it has taken to heart at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Among the changes implemented in Rio, taekwondo matches will now take place in a smaller ring and judges will score spin kicks higher, to encourage the high-flying action. Also, athletes are allowed to have a color—usually one representing their countries—on their traditionally all-white uniforms to make it easier for the layperson to pick out a fellow countryman.
Taekwondo originated in South Korea (one of the main differences from karate, which originated in Japan), so it’s no surprise that the South Koreans have won twice as many Olympic gold medals as any other country. But the rest of the world is catching up partly due to the sport’s changes; Spain and China tied atop the medal standings with three medals in London, while Korea walked away with just two—tied with six other countries, including the U.S. and Russia (all Russian taekwondo athletes have been approved to compete at the Rio Olympics).
Team USA features the most decorated taekwondo athlete in U.S. history in Steven Lopez, who’s heading to his fifth Olympics in 2016, and Paige McPherson, a bronze-medalist in London who finished third in the 2015 world championships and won the 2015 Pan-American Games. The two veterans will be joined by first-time Olympians Stephen Lambdin and Jackie Galloway. The U.S. has won a taekwondo medal at every Games; can Team USA keep the streak alive in Rio?
A quick rules refresher: Taekwondo fights consist of three two-minute rounds with a one-minte break between rounds. Athletes score a point for landing a strike to the body and three points for kicking the head. An additional point is added if the strike includes a spin move. The chest protector, head gear and socks are outfitted with electronic sensors to help judges with scoring. Taekwondo awards medals in four weight classes for each men and women, with 16 competitors in each category. A nation can qualify up to eight athletes, one in each weight class.
Athletes to watch
Steven Lopez, USA
The 37-year-old competing in his fifth Games already has three Olympic medals to his name (two golds and a bronze) and five world titles, and after a lackluster showing in London—he lost in the opening round—he’s ready to once again prove that he’s among the world’s best. Another Olympic medal for Lopez, who won bronze at the 2015 Pan-American Games, could make him the most decorated Olympic taekwondo athlete ever.
Aaron Cook, Moldova
The Great Britain-born athlete switched alliances to Moldova after he wasn’t selected for the Olympic team in 2012 despite being the top-ranked athlete in the 80-kg weight class. Cook won a bronze in the 2015 world championships and a bronze in the 2016 European championships, ensuring that he won’t be passed over by his new country for the Rio Games.
Jackie Galloway, USA
Galloway, who has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Mexico, competed for the Mexican national team for two years, and was named as an alternate for London. But after that she made it her goal to compete for the U.S. Galloway finished third in her weight class at the 2015 world championships, and was one of three American women (along with fellow 2016 Olympian Paige McPherson and Cheyenne Lewis) to win gold at the Pan-American Games.
Wu Jingyu, China
The No. 1-ranked athlete in the 49-kg weight class, Wu could make history if she wins a third-straight Olympic gold medal, becoming the first taekwondo athlete to have three Olympic golds. However, she was beat in the final of the 2015 world championships by Ha Min-ah of South Korea.
Jade Jones, Great Britain
Jones won the first gold medal in taekwondo for Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics, and the world No. 1 in the 57-kg weight class will be heading to Rio looking to defend that gold. Known for her brutal kicks to the head, Jones locked up the 2015 world title and the 2016 European championships, making her the athlete to beat at the 2016 Games.
Aug. 17—Women’s 49 kg, men’s 58 kg
Aug. 18—Women’s 57 kg, men’s 68 kg
Aug. 19—Women’s 67 kg, men’s 80 kg
Aug. 20—Women’s 67+-kg, men’s 80+ kg