06 June 2019

The Unfortunate Cost of Evolving from Martial Art to Combat Sport

I've written long ago why I'm not fond of tournament sparring (1, 2). In short, if self-defence training is the goal, a focus on tournament sparring can hamper that goal because tournament sparring tends to narrow the scope of the training to the sporting arena context, which is far too artificial to reflect the reality of a self-defence encounter. Traditional martial arts, and in particular civilian defensive arts, envision quite a different context to prepare for than that of a competition ring.

However, in this post I want to speak about other "costs" that comes at the expense of a sport focus.

Here I want to focus on the WT style of Taekwon-Do as an Olympic sport. There are some attempts to get ITF Taekwon-Do to also join with WT to become one event alongside WT under the "Taekwondo" umbrella. There is a believe that such a move will secure the ITF Taekwon-Do's longevity, enhance its prestige, and strengthen Taekwon-Do's position at the Olympic Games.

Image Source: https://www.olympic.org/taekwondo

I am somewhat skeptical. I believe an evolution from martial art to combat sport comes at an unfortunate cost.

First, when a martial art changes into a sport there is a dilution of the rich historical arsenal of the original system. When Judo was developed as a streamlined version of Jujutsu, many of the original techniques were purged. Similarly, when the focus in Taekwondo becomes sport competition, a big percentage of techniques are inevitably neglected. Taekwondo enthusiasts are all aware how Olympic Taekwondo has reduced the martial art—that is by its very name supposed to be a foot-and-hand system—into primarily a kicking system. Sadly, an emphasis on kicking in sport Taekwondo has not enriched Taekwondo’s kicking arsenal with more kicks, but rather reduced the arsenal to only a handful of techniques that works well in the limited context of the sports ring.

Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greco-Roman_wrestling
Second, not only are there technical losses when a martial art becomes a sport, but there is also an intangible loss in the form of a reduced cultural and philosophical heritage. Of the surviving historic European martial arts (HEMA) that became modern sports such as western boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, and fencing, very little of the original cultural and philosophical heritage are practised and celebrated by the athletes training and competing in these sports. Even Judo, which was intended by its founder to be a pedagogic tool to teach certain philosophical values, is in current times usually practised simply as a sport with hardly any philosophical teachings as part of training. Contrary to such combat sports, in martial arts the cultural and philosophical heritages are usually integral to their practise.

Third, when the philosophical and cultural heritage is removed it is often replaced with “[p]ositive sporting values and objectives”*. In the case of Taekwondo as promoted by the WT, an emphasis is given to the sport values of Olympism. This means that the original East Asian philosophy and values that are inherent to the martial arts are replaced with western values (i.e. Grecian inspired Olympism) for the combat sport. The adoption of Olympism may at first seem commendable. However, the East Asian martial arts are not culturally neutral. Quite the opposite: East Asian martial arts, like folk dances, function as containers of cultural heritage. Therefore, when focussing on the sport aspect of the martial art there is an emphasis of the new sport values, which inevitably results in a de-emphasis of the original cultural heritage. In a discussion on the western-centric Olympic sports, Allen Guttmann laments the resultant cultural imperialism. He argues that even when East Asian martial arts spread to the west, they often “[transformed] in accordance with Western assumptions about the nature of sports”*. Ironically, instead of the intended goal of using Taekwondo for soft power diplomacy the result is a form of “soft colonialism,” where the original martial art loses its Oriental identity—to be replaced with a western inspired identity. At the very least this should be considered culturally insensitive and a regrettable loss.

Is the security and prestige of joining the Olympic Games worth the losses? For some people who see the opportunity of winning a medal at the Olympic Games in their chosen sport, it is worth it. For others, those who see the martial arts something other than a sport, for example as containers of cultural heritage, it is not.

No comments: