Who would’ve thought ten years ago that Great Britain would be one of the world’s leading contenders in the sport of Taekwondo? Indeed, how many of us had even heard of it back then?
Yet now our nation currently boasts a roster of international athletes that includes three Olympic medalists alongside three World and five European champions.
More importantly, the sport has also played a huge part in smashing the stereotype – in this country at least – that women have no place in combat events.
And while it has certainly been a huge team effort, much of this revolution can be traced back to two incredible women – Jade Jones and Bianca Walkden.
Jones’ sensational gold at London 2012 was the moment that provided the initial spark for our love affair with the Korean martial art.
That summer we were gripped in a sort of sports-mad trance, desperate to watch as much sport as possible and tuning in to events we would never have considered otherwise.
And despite the seemingly never-ending success over that incredible fortnight, the sight of the 19-year-old from Flint ripping off her helmet and screaming in delight after winning her country’s first ever Olympic taekwondo medal was one that stuck in the minds of many.
However it was her second title in Rio four years – alongside a bronze for Walkden – later that really lit the fire amongst the British public and journalists alike.
After an initial surge of interest after London, Taekwondo was one of many sports put on the back burner by the media, as though the press saw their achievements as nothing more than a result of the ‘Home Advantage’.
Even further medals at major events for Jones and Walkden’s stunning breakthrough – winning European gold in 2014 before becoming just the second British world champion the following year – were lucky if they received a few sentences.
But that all changed after Rio 2016 as a second gold for Jones and a bronze Walkden – alongside Lutalo Muhammad’s silver – showing their previous successes were no fluke and that they were genuinely world class athletes.
This has only been further proven in subsequent years, with Walkden becoming the first Brit to defend a world title in 2017 before adding a historic third – in slightly controversial circumstances – on home soil last month alongside several other impressive wins.
Jones also secured a world title – her first – in Manchester after winning European gold in 2018 and has stated she’s going for a third straight gold at Tokyo 2020.
Singapore 2010 🥇
London 2012 🥇
Rio 2016 🥇
— Team GB (@TeamGB) October 5, 2018
As a result, media and public interest alike have risen exponentially, as proved a the aforementioned World Championships in May with Manchester Arena packed for much of the four days and plenty of articles written before, during and after the event.
Furthermore, Walkden was also on the shortlist for the 2017 BBC Sports Personality of the Year, finishing 10th and receiving nearly 14,000 votes.
It’s not just their talent that Jones and Walkden that this increased coverage is highlighting though.
It’s also proving that ‘normal’ women can excel in combat sports as well as normalising their presence within them.
For so long men have sneered at the thought of the women engaging in a physical grapple; even now too many think their only role should be limited to ring girls, wearing bikinis and cheering on the men.
But the beauty of participating in a sport with no history in this country is that there are no pre-conceived ideas about who should be ‘allowed’ to compete.
On so many occasions I’ve witnessed people saying women shouldn’t be allowed to box or wrestle, but very rarely have I heard they can’t kick each other in the head.
And by not only continuing to be shown on TV but continuing to win on the biggest stages, Jones and Walkden are inspiring a new generation of women and girls that they can achieve and succeed an area of sport long deemed inaccessible.
— Bianca Walkden TKD (@BiancaW_tkd) May 18, 2019
As if this wasn’t enough, both then enhance this further by being fantastically engaging and relatable role models.
They help out with coaching masterclasses, take selfies and sign autographs after events, interact with their fans on social media while also using the platforms to show they also do run-of-the-mill things and always come across as fun, characterful individuals in every media appearance they do.
Yes all of this is now part and parcel of being an professional athlete but these two do it consistently so well to show women that they can be ‘normal’ and punch and kick people competitively at the same time.
The fact that there are so many exciting young female athletes coming through the GB Taekwondo ranks – including Charlie Maddock, Lauren Williams and Maddison Moore – can certainly be put down in part at least to their influence.
It’s not just the battles on the mat that these two have won; they’ve also conquered the ones off it too.