Accessibility links

Ivorian Taekwondo Champions Head to Rio Olympics


It is the home stretch for three Ivorian taekwondo athletes who are heading to the Rio Olympics. In their training room in the basement of the national stadium in Abidjan, they spend every morning perfecting their skills under the guidance of their coach.

The Rio Summer Games are just weeks away, and Ivory Coast has won only one Olympic medal in its history. That was 32 years ago.

Track and field is still the top category for African Olympians, but Asian martial arts are gaining ground — especially in West Africa.

In all, African nations are sending more than 50 athletes to compete in taekwondo and judo this year.

"We are very confident. … Our athletes are mature," said Attada Tadjou, technical director of the Ivorian Taekwondo federation. "They are on a par with the best in the world."

FILE - South Korea's Hwang Kyung-seon fights Ivory Coast's Ruth Gbagbi, in red, during their match in the women's taekwondo competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Aug. 10, 2012.

FILE - South Korea's Hwang Kyung-seon fights Ivory Coast's Ruth Gbagbi, in red, during their match in the women's taekwondo competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Aug. 10, 2012.

Ruth Gbagbi, 22, competed in the London Olympics in 2012, and won gold in her category at the African Taekwondo Championships. She also won a gold medal at last year's African Games.

Gbagbi says government support is coming along gradually, as the athletes’ success grows. "But the public,” she said, “yes, we have a lot of fans who approach us, who encourage us. Ivorians are motivated.”

Young fans

Taekwondo was first introduced in Ivory Coast in the 1960s by a Korean master. The sport is now a popular extracurricular activity in Ivorian schools.

In this school in Abidjan, 100 pupils dressed in white doboks — the traditional martial arts uniform — are attending an after-school taekwondo class in the school yard. The youngest pupils are only three years old.

Ange-Emmanuel Koffi, 13, says his parents got him involved in taekwondo.

"They saw that I didn't know how to defend myself and I was withdrawn because of that," Koffi said.

Part-time coach Ibrahima Soumahoro says the image of the sport has evolved over time.

"We used to think of martial arts practitioners as thugs who assault people," Soumahoro said. "Now, taekwondo is an Olympic sport. It's taught in schools and universities. It is practiced by an elite."

‘Discipline, wisdom’

Thirteen-year-old Moussa Berthé says he has learned much more than self-defense in five years of practice.

FILE - Mauro Sarmiento of Italy, in blue, and N'guessan Sebastien Konan of Ivory Coast fight during their men's preliminary round taekwondo match at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Aug. 22, 2008.

FILE - Mauro Sarmiento of Italy, in blue, and N'guessan Sebastien Konan of Ivory Coast fight during their men's preliminary round taekwondo match at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Aug. 22, 2008.

"They teach us to be disciplined,” he said. “This is how you recognize a person who does taekwondo. Discipline, respect, dignity and wisdom."

Berthé will be watching the national team compete in Rio.

"They are examples to follow because they are champions, and they come from Ivory Coast so it encourages us to continue taekwondo," he said.

Rio will be the first Olympic Games for national team members Mamina Koné and Cheick Cissé.

Koné is a four-time medalist at the African Taekwondo Championships, and Cissé won gold in his category at both the African Games last year and at the African championship earlier this year.

Cissé says part of their motivation for bringing home a medal is to help smooth the way for the next generation of African athletes.

Taekwondo has been an Olympic sport since 2000, but only three Africans have won medals in the event.

XS
SM
MD
LG