Lopez takes fight to taekwondo federation
BEIJING – With taekwondo already rumored to be on the brink of Olympic elimination, the sport was doing everything it could to avoid even the slightest shock of controversy.
On Friday, it was struck by lightning.
In a chaotic episode that might ultimately prove to be the tipping point to Olympic doom, American two-time defending gold medalist Steven Lopez was eliminated from gold-medal contention on a controversial referee’s decision. Lopez would go on to win bronze in the 80-kilogram weight class, but not until after his team leader, Herb Perez, had filed a protest and then ripped the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) for intimidation and gross mismanagement of the sport’s rules and oversight.
“When (poor judging) happens to you, you’re told to shut up and not say anything because of what will happen to you, or what will happen to the sport,” Perez said. “If this is truly what taekwondo is about, maybe taekwondo shouldn’t be in the Olympics. Maybe they should fix it.”
Perez was furious after a string of events that began when Lopez – who hadn’t lost a match since 2002 – was docked one point in his quarterfinal match against Italy’s Mauro Sarmiento. A referee determined Lopez had used a “cut kick,” which is essentially kicking away an opponent’s blow below the waist. Perez maintained that Lopez had merely raised his left leg in defense on the foul, and Sarmiento had kicked into Lopez’s leg in an attempt to draw a point deduction.
Lopez’s lost point cut his 2-1 lead into a 1-1 tie in the third and final period of the match. He eventually lost in sudden-death overtime.
What came next had the WTF scrambling on the defensive as Perez came out with some serious allegations. First, he said the protest wasn’t properly handled – that the Olympic Competition Supervisory Board didn’t respond for 45 minutes, well outside of the allotted 15 minutes typically allowed. Second, Perez said they were given little explanation as to why their protest had been deemed “unacceptable.”
“Unacceptable could mean anything from we didn’t file the papers properly to we didn’t use the right color pencil,” Perez said. “… Under the WTF competition rules, we should have been notified about the decision, the criteria, the methodology used, what evidence was presented,and what referees were reviewing it. We were not.”
But that wasn’t even the bombshell. Perez said that, in a June taekwondo conference, the heads of the 25 teams which attended were asked to sign an agreement not to file any protests at these Olympic Games in hopes of avoiding a controversy that could further put the sport’s Olympic future in jeopardy.
“We were manhandled,” Perez said. “We were threatened not to protest at this event. I think that needs to be said. We were made to sign a document not to protest for the betterment of taekwondo. It was a very big thing. There was a table, you went up to the table, (and) you signed the document. You signed it in front of the secretary general (of the WTF) and you gave him the document.”
Perez said he was approached again by WTF officials on Friday after his protest was denied. This time, Perez said, they were asking him not to speak to the press.
“I was asked to compromise (again) five minutes ago,” he said. “They said, ‘Don’t tell anyone.’ The head of the WTF came to me and said, ‘Don’t speak to the press.’ The secretary general said, ‘Don’t do this.’ (Secretary General Jin Suk) Yang and (WTF president Chungwon) Choue said, ‘Herbert, don’t do this. Think about the future.’ ”
The WTF’s director of public relations, Seok-Jae Kang, vehemently denied coaches had signed a “no protest” pact, calling the claim “nonsense.”
“It is not an agreement. I would call it a resolution,” Kang said. “A resolution on fair play. … It was ‘Do your best to ensure fair play and judging.’ Appealing is up to them. It’s their right and their rule. They can appeal.
“Ask him the right wordings (on what he signed).”
Kang said officials from the WTF were not prepared to respond on Friday night, but pointed to a June release on the body’s Web site, which touted “Participants in WTF Olympic Coach Seminar Adopt Resolution on Fair Play.” The release lists some lines from a document signed by coaches at the event, including an agreement that signees would “respect and accept the judgment and decisions of the refereeing and technical officials in all taekwondo competitions.”
Clearly, Perez believed that to mean that coaches were being leaned upon not to protest at the Olympics. But Kang said that interpretation was “a matter of opinion.” Another coach, Iran’s Kiarash Bahri, didn’t attend the June meeting, but he said he was never told explicitly not to protest.
“The WTF wanted everybody to have more self-control, and if they want to make a protest, take the correct procedure actually, not to jump up and down and make a ruckus, raise a lot of noise,” Bahri said. “Take the correct procedure to go about it, file the complaint and then they’ll decide. But it wasn’t like, ‘Don’t make a protest.’ ”
The ugliness marred an otherwise positive story for taekwondo, which had seen a generous amount of coverage as Lopez and his two siblings, Mark and Diana, had captured medals in their respective weight classes. Mark Lopez captured silver in the 68-kilogram division, while Diana Lopez took bronze in the 57-kilogram weight class.
“(WTF officials) don’t think about the repercussions until after they make a mistake,” Steven Lopez said. “They know the power we have as a family and bringing limelight to our sport. By no means do I want to bring this sport down. I love this sport. But sometimes in any sport there are judges, there are politics involved. Unfortunately, there’s not supposed to be that in any of the sports, but you see it all the time. Whether it be gymnastics, boxing, it happens.
“There are bad calls all the time. This is one of the times that it happened to me. It normally doesn’t, but it happened. It sucks.”