· mumblings ·

I’ve been meaning to post about taekwondo since the end of the Olympics. As I suspected, despite loving the opening ceremony, I didn’t watch any of the actual sport. However, while flipping channels one day, I came across one of the taekwondo heats. My curiosity was aroused because I used to practice taekwondo as a teenager. It was interesting because the style that the contestants were using was quite different from the sparring style I was used to, and there seemed to be very little use of punches. They also had big, torso-protecting pads which we certainly didn’t use. Taekwondo has always had a rather fractured governing structure, with several competing federations. It seems that there are now two main ones: the International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF), and the World Taekwondo Federation (with the amusing acronym ‘WTF’). It seems that the style used in the Olympics is the World Taekwondo Federation one, which explains why it didn’t look familiar to me.

I enjoyed watching the bout, and it reminded me of the hours I spent practising at training sessions and doing gradings. For a long time, I was the only girl in the club I went to, which didn’t bother me at all. The boys and men there got used to me quite quickly and were actually very egalitarian about the whole thing, which was refreshing. Our instructor had a policy that everyone had to fight everyone else, and everyone went through the same training, regardless of sex, age or size. The one and only concession was that I was allowed to do press-ups using the palms of my hands rather than my knuckles: something I was rather grateful for, since I was pretty terrible even at straightforward press-ups.

Over the years I was in the club, I sparred with everyone from skinny little lads to hulking great men who were at least a foot taller than me and tens of kilograms heavier. The trick with fighting taller people was to get inside their reach. It works in a similar way to walking around the back of a horse. If you keep your distance from the back of a horse, its kick is likely to have reached full force by the time its hoof connects with your body. In contrast, if you walk close to its backside, it can’t make a proper connection even if it tries to kick. So if you move closer to your tall opponent than the length of their arms and legs, they can’t do much damage and are constantly moving back to get you at the proper distance from them. Of course, they were too polite to just stick a hand firmly on top of my head with their arm outstretched, thereby keeping my impotently flailing arms and legs well clear of their body. Anyway, it was a lot of fun, and sparring with people of different ages and who were of different levels of proficiency (including black belts) was a great way to learn.

I do remember a particular incident which, thinking about it in retrospect, was a classic ‘but she’s a girl…’ moment. We occasionally got people coming to our training who usually attended one of our instructor’s other clubs. One night, a particularly arrogant young lad turned up. Most taekwondo enthusiasts I came across in that time were just interested in exercise, learning a skill and getting better at their sport, but there were one or two who clearly thought it was going to turn them into some kind of street-fighting Bruce Lee, and this chap was one of those. He got paired with me for sparring, and as we got ready for our bout, he said to me, loudly and sneeringly, “I’ll go easy on you because you’re a girl.”

Well. I don’t know if he noticed, but there was an audible hush from the others in the club who knew me, and a certain amount of indrawn breath and quiet snickering. If he had been a bit more attuned to social subtleties, he might have noticed that the prevailing unspoken sentiment in the room was, “Ooo mate, you shouldn’t have said that.” I just smiled sweetly and got into the ready position.

One thing to understand about the style of taekwondo we practised at the time was that it was semi-contact. That means that you were supposed to perform a kick or punch at full force, but then snap it to a stop right at the point you made contact with your opponent, so that you ended up just tapping them lightly. In theory, this made it safer to practice, and also made sparring bouts in competition more fluid, because the action did not have to be stopped on each point (as happens in karate I think). In practice, it required formidable control, and while that was one of the challenging and fun things about the sport, it didn’t always go to plan. Even if you timed your action just right, your opponent could move towards you after you had initiated it, and thus get the full force of it. It happened to all of us at one time or another, and we had all either dealt or received a smack on the jaw or a kick to the ribs. It was just part of the sport and you apologised or picked yourself up again as appropriate, no harm done and no offence taken.

Anyway, back at my sparring bout with Junior Bruce Lee, I didn’t hold back just because he was a boy. I could see a brief look of slight panic in his eyes in the first few minutes, as he realised that he had somewhat underestimated me. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that the other club members were trying to watch what was going on between us, while continuing their own bouts. At some point, I delivered a front snap kick to the lower torso, which was a legal move. However, I slightly mis-timed the force and made more than semi-contact, a bit lower than I had intended. Junior Bruce Lee immediately crumpled on the ground while his face went scarlet. I apologised immediately of course and tried to help him up, but he was fully occupied with being in agony. I don’t know if he saw the other club members winking at me or laughing under their breath.

I’d like to be able to claim that it was a pure accident, and that I rose above his “but you’re a girl” comments and acted with dignity. However, even thought that was many years ago, I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t purely an accident, and that I could have controlled the kick better if I had really tried. The truth is that his comments annoyed me and I wanted to show him. I’m not proud of that even now, even though the other people in the club were behind me and thought he got what he’d deserved. Junior Bruce Lee wasn’t permanently hurt, so there was no lasting harm done, and it was a common enough occurrence in sparring. But I still wish that I had controlled myself better and showed him instead that he (and his sexist comments) didn’t matter to me.