China showcased its credentials in terms of both event management and athletic excellence at the 2nd World Taekwondo Grand Slam Champions Series which finished this week in the city of Wuxi, near Shanghai.

The Grand Slam series has come of age following its inaugural year. The event, a collaboration between Wuxi and World Taekwondo, or WT, the Seoul-based international federation that oversees Olympic taekwondo, ended the fighting season in style.

A Hollywood moment – in China

Unlike conventional tournaments, the Grand Slam takes place in a bespoke studio, with a small crowd, rather than a stadium. Vegas-style production effects – sound and light shows, dry ice, entertainment between rounds – maximize the experience for TV viewers.

With the field of play surrounded by a rig of 90 cameras, “4D” freeze-frame shots offer TV viewers Matrix-style visual effects.

As a result, the inaugural Grand Slam was live-streamed across 39 platforms; sweet numbers for a sport that, like other Asian martial arts, finds it difficult to compete for viewers with mixed martial arts events.

And in a poor man’s sport that lacks major commercial sponsors, the Grand Slam offers the richest purses in taekwondo. Gold medalists take home a hefty US$70,000 in prizemoney – dwarfing the sport’s second-largest purse, offered in the Grand Prix series, of $5,000.

As such, the Grand Slam provides a model for taekwondo event management, according to the WT leader.

“I am extremely excited to see the Grand Slam advance into its second year,” said WT President Chungwon Choue. “As a media showcase for taekwondo, as a benchmark for presentation and production, and as a test laboratory for rule modifications, the Grand Slam points toward the future of our sport.”

The week-long tournament invites the top fighters in all eight – four male, four female – Olympic weight categories.

Top medal honors this year were shared between China and Great Britain, which both finished with two golds. With 2019 being a pre-Olympic year, it is likely that some of the winners in Wuxi will also appear on the podiums in Tokyo in 2020.

Grand Slam gold medalist Maksim "The Red Machine" Khramtcov of Team Russia puts the boot in. Photo: World Taekwondo
Grand Slam gold medalist Maksim ‘The Red Machine’ Khramtcov of Team Russia puts the boot in. Photo: World Taekwondo

In the men’s division, Jun Jang of Korea won gold in the -58kg category; Olympic gold medalist Shuai Zhao of China emerged victorious at -68kg, in what is his biggest victory since Rio in 2016; Maksim “The Red Machine” Khramtcov of Russia secured gold in the -80kg; and Sajjad Mardani of Iran won the men’s +80kg. In the women’s division: Number two seed Panipak Wongpattanakit of Thailand won gold in the -49kg; Lijun Zhou of China won in the women’s -57kg; and Lauren Williams and Bianca “Queen Bee” Walkden, both of Great Britain, won the -67kg and +67kg titles, respectively.

World Champion Khramtcov and double World Champion Walkden both defended their Grand Slam titles, won the year prior. Both may have been relieved at their return to form: Neither fighter managed to win gold in the last elite-level tournament, the Grand Prix Final, held in Fujairah, UAE, last month.

Day 1 Semi Final Highlights: Courtesy World Taekwondo/YouTube

China bets big on taekwondo

Taekwondo originated as a martial art in South Korea, mainly in the Seoul area, during the 1940s and 1950s, and went global as a hardcore unarmed combat method during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. In the 1970s, under the auspices of WT, the martial art morphed into a combat sport.

It made its first Olympic appearance as a demonstration sport at the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics and is now a full program sport which will appear in both Tokyo 2020 – where para taekwondo will debut at the Paralympics – and at Paris in 2024.

South Korea remains the perennial favorite, but over the last two Olympic cycles, Team Korea has faced stiff challenges from China, Cote d’Ivoire, Great Britain, Iran, Russia and Turkey. With China’s native martial art wushu, also known as kung fu, not on the Olympic program, China has swung to taekwondo in a big way.

A South Korean taekwondo master reckons that there are more taekwondo players in China than the entire South Korean population of 50 million; a Chinese taekwondo official estimated that there are some 40,000 taekwondo gyms and perhaps 80 million players nationwide.

The reason for the sport’s popularity may be linked both to culture – Korea is traditionally a Sinic-influenced nation, and China today is a major consumer of K-pop – and also to Beijing’s significant Olympic ambitions.

The Grand Slam indicates that Chinese interest is extending beyond the sport per se, and into sport management – a strategy that will raise the national game. The competition represents a significant investment by Wuxi City and a group of local investors who have sunk money into the tournament as Wuxi seeks to position itself as a city of sport.

Dejun Sun, a cheerful and energetic businessman who heads the investment team, said that some $20 million had been the initial capital.

The Chinese city of Wuxi is bringing Hollywood-style set design and production values to taekwondo. Photo: Andrew Salmon
The Chinese city of Wuxi is bringing Hollywood-style set design and production values to taekwondo. Photo: Andrew Salmon

Sun sees major potential. “First, taekwondo is a beautiful sport with beautiful techniques and beautiful athletes!” he said. “Also, it is an Asian sport and it is a combat sport, but it is not actually violent – it’s genteel.”

Noting the massive amateur population base in China, he wants to create stars. “When an athlete becomes a superstar, he or she becomes an idol for youth and the sport becomes more and more popular,” he said. “We have the potential!”

Beyond the tournament, Wuxi – a former industrial city that seeks to reinvent itself as a hub of sport and lifestyle – is also investing in a pro-level taekwondo training center. Moreover, during the Grand Slam, Wuxi provided a neutral ground for a meeting held between senior officials of WT, which represents South Korean taekwondo, and the International Taekwondo Federation, or ITF, which represents North Korean taekwondo.

Wuxi’s investments are already paying off. In November, the city won the rights from WT to host the 2021 World Taekwondo Championships and Para Taekwondo Championships.

The bigger pay-off, however, may come in Tokyo 2020, where Team China will be hoping to increase its medal count beyond the two golds won in Rio 2016 – which put the team in second place behind overall Olympic champs South Korea.

Day 4 Semi Final Highlights: Courtesy World Taekwondo/YouTube