LONDON (AP) At the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, taekwondo may be moving further away from its roots as a Korean martial art, but organizers hope the new changes to the combat sport will produce more dynamic fights featuring even more of the acrobatic kicks it has become known for.
Not only has the size of the competition ring shrunk, giving competitors less space to retreat from the usual onslaught of kicking, but the sport's governing body is again encouraging athletes to use more spinning techniques - competitors will now get an extra point for any kick where they turn their backs.
Head kicks already score the most in taekwondo, earning three or four points. Shots to the body, including punches, score only one. Punches to the head are not allowed.
After the scoring debacle of the Beijing 2008 Olympics, when the results of one match were overturned, taekwondo officials introduced a new electronic scoring system that automatically registers points when fighters, wearing electronic sensors, kick their opponents with sufficient force.
Although the new method has eliminated the subjectivity of human judges, some athletes complain that it can be a bit temperamental and that the kicks that score best are often not traditional taekwondo techniques, but unorthodox adaptations that sacrifice form for expediency.
Instead of the powerful turning kicks integral to taekwondo, many of the sport's top fighters rely on quick-scoring jabs off the front leg that some have unkindly referred to as ''chicken fighting.'' Chungwon Choue, president of the World Taekwondo Federation, said officials ''are committed to finding a balance between honoring our traditional techniques and evolving the sport to make it more exciting for new audiences.''
He said the sport's evolution also means more medal chances for everyone, including countries without an established Olympic track record. Choue noted that while taekwondo once used to be dominated by Asian countries with a strong martial arts history, eight different countries won gold medals at the London games, including Argentina, Italy and Serbia.
And in another break from tradition that may make martial arts purists recoil, athletes will be allowed for the first time to wear colored trousers in Olympic competition. Athletes typically wear an all-white uniform and protective gear that is red or blue. At Rio, athletes will also be allowed to wear one color in addition to white on their trousers, which may feature a national flag or color; 20 countries have already submitted their designs and more are expected to follow suit before the games start. Taekwondo's governing body said the move is meant to modernize the sport and make it easier for spectators to identify fighters.
RETURNING STAR: American fighter Steven Lopez is the most decorated athlete in taekwondo history, winning a record five world championship titles and three Olympic medals, two golds and one bronze. At 37, he's also likely to be the oldest in the Rio taekwondo competition, in a sport where most athletes are in their early 20s. After a disappointing showing at the London games - Lopez was knocked out in the first round after suffering an injury shortly before - he will be even more motivated to prove he is still one of the sport's biggest stars.
DON'T MISS: British-born athlete Aaron Cook was the sport's top-ranked fighter in the 80-kilogram division during the run-up to the London Olympics but didn't make it to the games; the U.K. refused to pick him for their team after Cook abandoned their training academy, selecting instead eventual bronze medal winner Lutalo Muhammad. This time around, Cook isn't taking any chances and recently switched allegiances to fight for Moldova after having his citizenship paid for by the country's taekwondo president. Cook fought at the Beijing Olympics, where he narrowly lost out on a bronze.
REFUGEE'S CHANCE: Raheleh Asemani, an Iranian refugee now training in Belgium, won an Olympic spot in the women's 57-kilogram category after being granted the opportunity to fight under the World Taekwondo Federation's flag as a refugee during the European qualifiers. Now working in a post office in Belgium after moving there three years ago, the former member of Iran's national taekwondo team has been training with the Belgian squad and will represent her newly adopted country in Brazil.