London 2012: Technology transforms taekwondo for Olympics

By Jessica CreightonOlympic sports reporter

The type of contentious judging decision that almost saw British taekwondo star Sarah Stevensonexternal-link unfairly eliminated from the 2008 Olympics could be a thing of the past.

It has taken over two years but the sport might have finally revolutionised its controversial scoring system.

Stevenson was initially eliminated from the competition in Beijing, despite landing a two-point head kick in the dying seconds that should have won her a semi-final place, and only a protest saw her reinstated.

Since then, governing body the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) has tried to do away with human frailties and introduced an electronic scoring system, with sensors fitted in the players' body armour and socks.

"It's the best I've ever seen it," said former Great Britain captain John Cullen at the recent Olympic test event in London. "It's the fairest and it's 99% accurate."

It has taken the WTF many months and numerous legal wranglings to get to this point, following problems with some of the other electronic systems they have tried.

Previously, scoring was in the hands of four judges who would press a button to award and deduct points. For a point to register, at least two judges had to press their buttons.

"From there, the world governing body has made massive changes," said Cullen.

"Now, it's a sensor in the sock and the body. When they connect with good power and good contact, the point registers automatically, which removes the subjectivity of it."

In addition, video replays have been introduced to allow players to have fight footage reviewed immediately if they feel judges have missed a point. The WTF has also overhauled how points are scored, raising the award for head kicks and spinning kicks to encourage more entertaining bouts.

It is all part of the plan to prove that taekwondo, which only made its Olympic debut at the 2000 Sydney Games, is worthy of Olympic inclusion when, in 2013, the International Olympic Committee reviews which sports will remain.

"It's a big year for the sport," said Cullen. "They have to be seen to be above aboard and giving the athletes a platform to perform, so they need to get the technology right. The world governing body has pulled out all the stops to get the sport ready for London."

But seven months out from the Games, there have been rumblings that the new equipment still needs some work.

"Athletes say sometimes when you hit it with full power it doesn't score, but that's the case for both athletes," explained Cullen. "Sometimes it's about contact, impact and accuracy, rather than just blasting the body. Fine-tuning needs to be put in place but they're very much on track.

"The Olympic Games deserves to have the best showcase of talent and the best athletes should always win. It's not always perfect, but it's fair, so that even if there are discrepancies it evens itself out and the best person wins."

And it is not just the image of the sport that the WTF has sought to change; the alterations that have come into place have seen major changes in how the players fight.

"The players have changed their games out of all recognition," said Cullen. "Now, there's a lot of pushing techniques because there's a sensor in the sole of the sock. They've also made it three points for a head kick and four points for a spinning head kick, which changes the game completely.

"The athletes have had to work hard on their flexibility, their timing, their footwork. It makes it a lot more exciting because everybody likes people getting kicked in the head."

Spectators at the test event in London were treated to just that as the competition ran smoothly, without any major technological hiccups.

Performance director Gary Hall, who was part of the British squad that appealed against Stevenson's quarter-final loss in Beijing, said he was content with the recent reforms.

"There's been a lot of technology changes since the last Olympics and it's improved the sport," stated Hall. "It's the right idea and the right initiative, and I'm pleased with the system that's in operation today.

"I've got no concerns about technology, the WTF have taken on all the feedback from the problems we had.

"Day in, day out [British fighters] work on the techniques, tactics and strategies that are going to win with this system."