Asia took two of the top three spots in the 2019 World Taekwondo Championship, with South Korea in pole position and China in third. But it was the hometown team from Manchester in the United Kingdom, who generated the big stories – and the controversy.
As had been widely predicted, perennial favorites South Korea won the overall championships, after the five-day tourney wrapped up in the Manchester Arena on Sunday, with a tally of four golds, one silver and two bronzes.
Great Britain, which has long hosted one of the world’s top women’s squads, took home one bronze and three golds, including one – a first for the country – in the men’s category.
Rising force China, which has invested heavily in the sport and hosts its richest prize, the annual Grand Slam Champions series in Wuxi at the end of the year, seized two golds, two silvers and three bronzes.
As per the medal table, after the big three teams, the other nations rounding out the top ten were Thailand, Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Cuba and Italy (in joint ninth place) and Mexico.
Nine hundred seventy-five athletes, representing 150 countries, as well as a team of refugees who fought under the banner of World Taekwondo, the sport’s Seoul-based governing body, were in contention in 16 weight categories (eight male, eight female) in the bi-annual battle.
The five-day event took place in front of a crowd that included International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. Manchester hosts a more-knowledgeable-than-usual crowd of spectators, given that the city provides the home of the British taekwondo team, and is also an annual stop in the sport’s Grand Prix series.
The next World Taekwondo Championships take place in Wuxi, China, in 2021. But before that, the sport’s elite will do battle at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.
Briton Bradly Sinden, 20 won his country first World Championship male title after beating Spain’s Javier Perez Polo 24-19 in the -68kg category. But perhaps an even more impressive victory than his gold-medal match was his semi-final win over South Korea’s Dae-hoon Lee, arguably the most dominant fighter in the game and a three-time world champion. The Korean – a demon on the mats, but a teddy bear off them – may now be reconsidering his coaching and game plan.
The local crowd was even more delighted when double-Olympic gold medalist Jade “The Headhunter” Jones – one of the sport’s most prominent figures globally – captured her first-ever World Championship title after defeating long-time rival Lee Ah-reum of South Korea in the -57kg category. At the last World Championships in Muju, South Korea, in 2017, it had been Lee who emerged the victor.
Jones told the BBC that she had been “desperate” to add a world title to a trophy cabinet that currently contains Olympic, Junior Olympic, European and Grand Prix metalwork. She is now gunning for what could be a record third Olympic title in Tokyo next year.
But it was Jones’ Manchester room-mate, Bianca “Queen Bee” Walkden who generated the big story as she captured her third consecutive world title. Yet, on the night, it would not be the victory itself that created the noise, but the manner of her win over 2016 Rio gold medalist Shuyin “The Beautiful Giraffe” Zheng of China.
As the finals of the women’s heavyweight division got underway, Walken seized an early lead, but Chinese, who had defeated the Brit in the Olympic semis in Rio in 2016, settled down and amassed a comfortable 20-10 point lead.
As the clock ticked down, Walkden switched tactics, repeatedly forcing Zheng out of the fighting area. After amassing ten penalties for stepping over the line, Zheng lost by disqualification.
“Walkden capitalized on Zheng’s defensive style with brutal aggression which repeatedly pushed the Chinese fighter off the mat,” the BBC Olympic sports commentator noted. “Although some will question the ‘sportsmanship’ Walkden showed, she fought within the rules.”
Not everyone agreed. As boos echoed around the arena, Walked tried to raise her opponent, who had sunk to her knees. Zheng collapsed again on the podium during the medal ceremony. In post-match interviews, Walkden said she would do the same thing again, given that “a win is a win.”
The match result ignited a war of words between the British and Chinese team heads, with the Chinese head coach calling Walkden’s tactics “very dirty,” and the British shooting back that the Chinese were being “disrespectful.”
In fact, though China captured two golds in Manchester, the country’s big stories were both silvers. One was Zheng’s controversial loss to Walkden. The other was Jingyu “Superkicker” Wu’s remarkable return to the mats.
Wu, a legendary player and a two-time Olympic gold medalist in taekwondo, retired after failing to win a medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics, and became a mum. Then, against all expectations, she returned to the fray in Manchester. After fighting her way through the preliminaries, she battled to a commendable silver against Thailand’s Panipak Wongpattanakit, 18-5 in the -49kg division.
“Returning was difficult for me, as my body is not the same and I have to leave my baby at home, but I want to break traditions and challenge my dream,” she told World Taekwondo media after her fight. “I was determined to prove society wrong and come back strong. Women can have children and still do what they love and I want not only athletes but women in society, to know that too.”
With 2019 being a pre-Olympic year, many of the winners in Manchester look set for gold runs in Tokyo in 2020 – albeit, Olympic taekwondo includes just eight weight categories, while the World Championships encompasses a wider field of 16.
Taekwondo, which first featured in the Summer Olympics as a demonstration sport in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988, entered the regular Olympic program in 2000 in Sydney, Australia. In Tokyo, it will be joined – for the first time – by its close cousin and rival on the global martial arts scene, Japanese karate, which is making its debut as a demonstration sport.
Given the results in Manchester and in other, recent top-level events, the taekwondo teams to watch in Tokyo next year will be the top ten teams from Manchester, as well as squads from Iran, Croatia, Jordan, Serbia, Spain and Cote d’Ivoire.