There are several common misconceptions about the Olympic sport of taekwondo. No, it's not a competition to see who can scream the loudest, even though at competitions, the air is punctuated with competitors' "Ki-haps!" No, taekwondo is not the same as karate -- karate originated in Japan, while taekwondo is from Korea (and the Koreans take immense pride in their national sport, and have said they will be "treated as traitors" if they don't win four gold medals, like they did in Beijing). And even though it may look that way, taekwondo is more than two competitors trying to beat the stuffing out of each other.
Taekwondo, which loosely translates from Korean as "the way of the hand and the foot," is one of the Olympics' newer sports, celebrating only its fourth competitive appearance at this year's Games (it served as a demonstration sport in 1988 and '92). While there are four competitive events in taekwondo, only sparring is contested at the Olympics. During a match, skilled kicks that land cleanly score points. The more complicated the kick, the more points scored.
Due to several controversies at the 2008 Olympics (scoring protests during Sarah Stevenson's and Steven Lopez's matches and a referee assault, among other problems), taekwondo may be on the brink of being eliminated from the Olympic program. The success of the 2012 tournament will weigh heavily on that decision.
Medals are awarded in four different weight classes for men and women -- flyweight (less than 58 kg for men, less than 49 kg for women), featherweight (58-68 kg, 49-57 kg), welterweight (68-80 kg, 57-67 kg) and heavyweight (more than 80 kg, more than 67 kg) -- putting eight medals up for grabs in London. A country can only send competitors for two weight classes per gender.
Steven Lopez became a household name after his gold medal-winning performance at the 2000 Olympics. The three-time Olympic medalist (including two golds) and five-time world champion will be a favorite for his fourth Olympic medal in the middleweight (-80 kg) class. Taekwondo is a family affair for Steven -- Lopez's sister, Diana, will also represent the U.S. at the 2012 Olympics in taekwondo, but Terrence Jennings broke up the potential Lopez party at the 2012 Olympics when he beat brother Mark Lopez at the taekwondo Olympic trials. Jennings, the 2011 USA Taekwondo Athlete of the Year, took bronze at the 2011 Pan American Games and will make a run for a medal in London.
22-year-old Paige McPherson is the newest face on the U.S. Olympic taekwondo team. Nicknamed McFierce, she took the silver medal at the 2011 Pan American Games. The former dancer is known for her incredible foot skills and balance, making her a threat in the middleweight class in London.
China's Wu and Taiwan's Yang met in the flyweight finals of the 2011 world championships -- Wu won the gold medal -- and the two, ranked no. 1 and no. 2 in the world, are likely to meet again in London. Wu is the defending flyweight Olympic gold medalist and has no plans to back down, but Yang is sick of finishing just short, after multiple international silver medals over the last four years.
In 2004, Yousef Karami represented his home country of Iran at the Olympic Games in Athens, where he won the bronze medal. Four years later, Iran sent only one taekwondo athlete to the Beijing Games, and Hadi Saei, not Karami, took that spot. Saei retired from competition after the 2008 Games, where he won his third Olympic medal and became Iran's most successful Olympic athlete, and Karami now has the stage to himself. At the taekwondo Olympic qualifying tournament in Baku, Karami came back from being down 4-0 against American taekwondo superstar Steven Lopez to win 5-4 and clinch a 2012 Olympic berth.
Because of taekwondo's Korean origins, many of the commands and terminology are in Korean. A place of training is called a dojang, the white uniform that taekwondo athletes wear is called a dobok (do means "way" and bok means "clothing" in Korean) and competitors during a fight are referred to as chung ("red") and hong ("blue") based on the color of their hogu ("chest protector").