By Yoo Jee-ho and Park Sojung
SEOUL, Aug. 29 (Yonhap) -- Beneath the benign facade of the soft-spoken South Korean taekwondo fighter Lee Dae-hoon lies a fierce, determined competitor on a mission -- to win his second consecutive Asian Games gold medal at home next month, and to bring fun back to the sport long criticized for being too tedious for casual observers.
"If I can work myself into top shape in time for the competition and not take anyone lightly, I think I should be able to take the gold medal," Lee said last week during a break from his training at the National Training Center in Seoul. Lee is getting ready for the 2014 Asian Games from Sept. 19 to Oct. 4 in Incheon, just west of Seoul, where Lee will try to defend his gold in the men's 63㎏ class.
"But I won't just stop there. My ultimate objective is to put on entertaining and exciting bouts for the spectators," Lee added. "I am training in a way that will help me do just that."
With many fighters too cautious to go for big hits and opting instead to protect what slim leads they may build, taekwondo for years has faced heat for a lack of action on the biggest stages -- so much so that its status as an Olympic sport has been threatened almost from the moment it joined the quadrennial competition in 2000.
South Korean taekwondo fighter Lee Dae-hoon celebrates after scoring a point during the national team trials on July 29, 2014, in Seoul for the 2014 Asian Games. (Yonhap file photo)
The sport's officials have instituted multiple changes in recent years to make bouts more thrilling. Before the 2012 London Olympics, the size of the court was tightened from 10ｍ by 10ｍ to 8ｍ by 8ｍ.
The point scale also changed. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, fighters earned one point for an attack to the body and two for a kick to the head. In London, they got one point for the body, two points for a turning kick to the trunk, three points for a valid kick to the head and four points for a turning kick to the head.
Fairly or not, the old criticism hasn't entirely gone away, something Lee is fully aware of.
"Some fighters are trying not to give up points and they tend to get too defensive," Lee said. "For this year, everyone on our team is trying to figure out ways to entertain our crowds. Hopefully, we will all be able to win gold medals and do so in an exciting fashion."
Lee also said he has fully adjusted to competing in the electronic scoring vest, which was first used in the Olympics in 2012.
Fighters now wear vests and socks with electronic sensors, and points are awarded only for strikes of sufficient force. The equipment was introduced to ensure transparent judging.
"Early on, some good fighters who weren't quite used to the vests would lose to opponents who maybe weren't as talented but who knew how to compete in those vests," Lee said. "For this year, my teammates and I are all accustomed to fighting in the vests."
At 22, Lee speaks softly but firmly with the assurance of a more seasoned veteran. His posture is always upright and his eyes fixed on those of his inquirer as he answers questions.
The way he carries himself -- with discipline, confidence but nary a hint of arrogance -- likely traces its roots to his upbringing. Lee's father, Lee Joo-yeol, used to run his own taekwondo academy, and the young Dae-hoon started going there at age five, learning the traditional Korean martial art that, aside from sparring and self-defense skills, also teaches discipline and etiquette.
The senior Lee himself was a taekwondo fighter in middle school and high school, and graduated from the same schools as his son. The boy who poked his head into his father's taekwondo school grew up to be one of the country's most accomplished fighters, with two world titles, two Asian championships, an Asiad gold and an Olympic silver.
Dae-hoon said he comes from a close-knit family with his loving father as the head and added his father tries not to place undue burden on his son.
"We talk often about taekwondo, but he doesn't really get into technical things or small details," the junior Lee said. "He tells me he has trust in me. He often says I should relax, try to have fun and not to worry too much. Other than that, he hardly talks about actual matches."
Lee will be competing in his usual weight class of 63㎏. He won the Asiad gold in that category four years ago, but moved down to the 58㎏ class for the 2012 Olympics. Considered tall for the lighter category at 182 centimeters, Lee failed to get the most out of his physical advantage and settled for silver instead. He admitted he'd struggled to keep his weight down and his power had also been sapped.
"When I moved down a class, dropping weight was often difficult," Lee said. "Now I am back to where I used to be and I have no such problems now."
Lee said he has focused more on gaining his strength back than on technical aspects in the buildup to the Asiad.
"For the Olympics, I'd dropped so much weight and lost some muscle, too," he recalled. "So I've been trying to get better conditioned and build more muscle. The Asian Games won't be easy because there's much parity in taekwondo, but I feel that I have enough strength now to go up against anyone."