Ancient Koreans are recorded to have engaged in numerous traditional sports and games, such as kite flying, tug-of-war, geune, jegichagi, neolddwigi as well as taekwondo and ssireum.
Among the traditional sports that have been revived in modern times, the martial art of taekwondo is widely practiced around the world and is the only Olympic event originated in Korea. Taekwondo uses the entire body, particularly the hands and feet. It not only strengthens one’s physical wellbeing, but also cultivates character via physical and mental training, coupled with techniques for discipline. This self-defense martial art has become a popular international sport in the last quarter century with some 3,000 Korean instructors now teaching taekwondo in more than 150 countries.
Evidence of taekwondo’s existence as a systematic defense meth od using the body’s instinctive reflexes can be traced back to ceremonial games that were performed during religious events in the era of the ancient tribal states.
During religious ceremonies such as Yeonggo, Dongmaeng (a sort of Thanksgiving ceremony), or Mucheon (Dance to Heaven), ancient Koreans performed a unique exercise for physical training and this exercise led to the development of taekwondo.
In Korea, the Taekwondo Association has a membership of about 3.8 million, constituting the largest affiliate of the Korea Sports Council. The World Taekwondo Federation (WTF), with its headquarters in Seoul, was officially approved as the governing body of the sport by the International Olympic Committee in 1980. Taekwondo was a demonstration sport in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, reflecting its worldwide popularity. It became an official Olympic medal event beginning in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Former Olympic taekwondo champion Moon Dae-sung was elected as a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) athletes’ commission during the Beijing Olympics.
Ssireum, a Korean traditional form of wrestling, is a type of folk competition in which two players, holding on to a satba (a cloth-sash tied around the waist and thigh), use their strength and various techniques to wrestle each other to the ground. The history of ssireum began at the same time that communities began to form. In primitive societies, people inevitably had to fight against wild beasts, not only for self-defense, but also for securi ng food. In addition, it was impossible for these communities to avoid getting into conflicts with other tribes. As a result, people ended up practicing different forms of martial arts to protect themselves.
The ultimate winner of a ssireum tournament was customarily awarded a bull, which was not only a symbol of strength, but also a valuable asset in an agricultural society.
Ssireum has become a sport with professional teams engaging in regular tournaments although its popularity has somewhat declined as TV preferred more grueling types of foreign-originated fighting sports. The Korean Ssireum Association is trying to revive a nationwide boom in this traditional sport by sponsoring national championships and developing rules and guidelines to make the sport more exciting to watch.