Taekwondo firsts aplenty at Rio 2016

The Rio 2016 taekwondo competition produced several ground-breaking achievements, with Ahmad Abughaush of Jordan and Cheick Sallah Cissé of Ivory Coast winning their countries’ first ever Olympic gold medals and Zhao Shuai scoring China’s maiden men’s gold in the sport, as did Radik Isaev for Azerbaijan. In the women’s events, Iran’s KIma Alizadeh and Egypt’s Hedaya Wahba scored notable firsts of their own, while Great Britain’s Jade Jones was the only fighter to retain a title.

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Kim Sohui of the Republic of Korea had the honour of winning the first taekwondo gold of Rio 2016 at Arena Carioca 3, defeating Serbia’s Tijana Bogdanovic 7-6 in the women’s -49kg final.

Wu Jingyu of China, the two-time defending champion, saw her hopes of an unprecedented third consecutive taekwondo gold end when she lost 17-7 to Bogdanovic in the quarter-finals, while reigning world champion Panipak Wongpattanakit of Thailand fell at the same hurdle, beaten 6-5 by Kim. The Korean then scored a sudden-death 1-0 victory over France’s Yasmina Aziez to reach the final, where the 18-year-old Bogdanovic joined her after scoring three kicks to the head in a 10-0 defeat of Mexico’s Itzel Manjarrez.

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The daughter of an elite gymnast, the 22-year-old Kim shot into a 5-2 lead in the second round of the final, only for the Serbian to claw back into contention as Kim picked up penalties. The Korean clung on for a one-point win, however, to win her first Olympic title and complete her comeback from a difficult 2015. Speaking afterwards, the 2011 and 2013 world champion said: “I didn’t even expect to be the Olympic champion. I really did my best, and I totally feel on cloud nine.”

Bogdanovic’s hard-fought silver provided further proof of her talent, which brought her a world junior title in 2014 and European Championship gold, her first major win, in 2016.  Meanwhile, Wongpattanakit recovered from her quarter-final defeat to secure the bronze with a 15-3 points-gap win over Manjarrez, while Patimat Abakarova of Azerbaijan, a first-round victim of Bogdanovic, also came through the repechage rounds to win bronze, which she sealed with a 7-2 win over Aziez.

Zhao opens China’s taekwondo account

The first men’s title of the 2016 Games was decided later in the day, with China’s Zhao Shuai taking gold in the -58kg division, defeating Thailand’s Tawin Hanprab 6-4 in the final. Luisito Pie of the Dominican Republic and the Republic of Korea’s Kim Taehun shared the bronzes.

Having turned 21 only two days earlier, Zhao’s win – the first major triumph of his career – was the perfect birthday present. The tall Chinese fighter’s only previous career medal was a bronze at the 2015 World Championships, but he belied that record with a string of impressive delays in Rio, and was never seriously threatened on his run to the final. In the other half of the draw, the 18-year-old Hanprab saw off both Kim and Pie en route to joining Zhao in the battle for gold.

The Chinese dominated the deciding bout, shaking off a kick to the head in the second round to emerge a 6-4 winner and clinch his country’s seventh Olympic taekwondo title and its first in a men’s weight division. Having taken up the sport at the age of 11, Zhao was understandably delighted to achieve his lifelong aim of winning gold at Rio 2016, which he believes will be the springboard to future success: “Winning this gold medal means that the future of the Chinese men’s taekwondo team can be better and we can get more and more gold medals. It’s not my own individual victory – it’s a whole team victory. I am very excited and it is still feels unreal.”

Abughaush scores a first for Jordan

Ahmad Abughaush scored a notable achievement in topping the men’s -68kg podium, securing his country’s first Olympic medal in any sport. The young Jordanian had already made history by winning through to the final against Alexey Denisenko of Russia, guaranteeing himself the silver medal at least. But that was not enough for the Amman student, who opened the scoring in the second round of the gold medal bout with a kick to his opponent’s body protector. Abughaush then landed two quick head kicks in round three to emerge a relatively comfortable 10-6 winner.

A virtual unknown prior to Rio 2016, having gone no further in a major competition than the second round at the 2015 Worlds, Abughaush made his mark by respectively defeating London 2012 -58kg finalists Lee Daehoon of the Republic of Korea and Spain’s Joel Gonzalez Bonilla in the quarter-finals and semi-finals. The Jordanian then completed a notable hat-trick with his defeat of Denisenko, the -58kg bronze medallist in London four years ago.

For his part, the Russian accounted for defending champion Servet Tazegül of Turkey with a points-gap win in the last eight. Tazegül went on to lose in the repechage, which ended with Gonzalez and Daehoon claiming the bronzes.

“It’s an indescribable feeling to win the first medal in the history of Jordan in all sports,” said the victorious Abughaush. “It’s also a great feeling to listen to the national anthem of Jordan being played in Rio, in front of the whole world.”

Jones makes it two in a row in a historic -57kg competition

Great Britain’s Jade Jones retained her Olympic -57kg crown in style, beating Eva Calvo of Spain 16-7 in the final. Jones started the bout confidently with two head kicks, only for her Spanish opponent to fight back and close the gap to 7-6 in the second round. Finding an extra gear in the final round, the Briton scored with a head kick en route to an ultimately emphatic victory.

“I was just so proud of myself for getting to the final again, so I just felt, you know, the pressure’s off I can just absolutely go for it,” said two-time European champion Jones after winning her second straight Olympic gold. “I wanted to become a legend, a double Olympic champion at 23 years old. I can’t believe it. A lot of people don’t know it’s so mentally tough and draining. It just shows all the hard work does pay off.”

Appearing in her first Games, the 25-year-old Calvo was delighted with her place on the podium: “It means so much. I’ve been working a lot for this medal all these four years. Even when I started taekwondo, everything I did was for this medal. I am very happy. When I finished the fight I was a little sad, but now I am really happy because I have this medal.”

In reaching the final, Calvo defeated Iran’s Kimia Alizadeh in the quarter-finals and Egypt’s Hedaya Wahba in the semis, though both recovered to win bronzes, the Iranian becoming her country’s first female Olympic medallist and Wahba securing a first women’s medal taekwondo medal for hers.

Reacting to her landmark achievement, Alizadeh said: “I am so happy for Iranian girls because it is the first medal, and I hope at the next Olympics we will get a gold. I am very excited and I want to thank my parents and my coach. They really stand behind me and I am so happy.” Equally elated, Wahba had this to say about her bronze: “I wanted to make the Egyptians proud. The medal means a lot, because I put a lot of hard work into this. I train every day and got injured a few times and got back up, so it paid off in the end.”

Cissé brings Ivory Coast a first gold

In clinching a truly dramatic 8-6 win with a spin kick to the head in the last second of his men’s -80kg final against Great Britain’s Lutalo Muhammad, Cheick Sallah Cissé won Ivory Coast’s first ever Olympic gold medal.

Trailing 6-4 as the clock counted down, Cissé scored a maximum four points with his stunning kick to snatch the title from Muhammad’s grasp. Describing his gold medal-winning move, the Ivorian said: “It was the very last second and we applied what we have worked on in training. We trained different situations and situations when there are only seconds left. This is what I have learned in training and it worked. It is a reflex.

“I was able to realise this dream with courage and with passion. You just have to believe in your dreams and I am an example for it that you can achieve everything if you believe. The gold medal for me is the encouragement of two years of hard work. I started in 2013, and here I am. I am very proud of my medal.”

A bronze medallist at London 2012, Muhammad could scarcely believe the gold had evaded him: “I came within inches of achieving what has been a life goal for me. Unfortunately I literally just came up short at the last second in the final. Obviously it’s disappointing for me. I wanted to be the Olympic champion today.”

Azerbaijan’s Milad Beigi Harchegani and Tunisia’s Oussama Oueslati shared the bronzes. Oueslati sealing his country’s first Olympic taekwondo medal by beating two-time Olympic champion Steven Lopez of the USA.

Debutant Oh on top

The women’s -67kg final between Oh Hyeri of the Republic of Korea and Haby Niaré of France turned out to be another tense affair. The Frenchwoman took the first round, only for the Korean to move ahead in the second and hold off a Niaré fightback in the third to claim a 13-12 victory.

After striking gold at the very first attempt, Oh said: I’ve tried for the Olympics three times, and on my third attempt I’ve finally been able to participate in the Olympics, and on my first Olympic stage I’ve won gold. The feeling hasn’t set in yet. I’ve been through a lot preparing for these Olympics, and this makes everything just perfect.”

“A round is two minutes and you have to be vigilant every single second,” said Niaré. “I came back but unfortunately it was not enough and I lost by one point. There were a few seconds when I was not in the match. These are mistakes you learn from, and you have to move forward. When I think about the gold medal it’s a bit of a blow, but what I have achieved is great.”

The two bronzes went to Ruth Gbagbi of Ivory Coast (the African country’s second of the day) and London 2012 runner-up Nur Tatar of Turkey, who respectively beat  Azerbaijan’s Farida Azizova 7-1 and Chinese Taipei’s Chuang-Chia-Chia 7-3.

Isaev breaks new ground for Azerbaijan

Radik Isaev won a first taekwondo gold for Azerbaijan in the men’s +80kg competition, adding Olympic gold to his collection of European, European Games and world titles. Easing his way through the competition, Isaev teed up a final against Niger’s Abdoulrazak Issoufou Alfaga, who was in no less impressive form. After a scoreless opening round, Isaev took the initiative with a head kick in round two and added another in the third to set up a 6-2 win.

“I didn’t think about the gold at all, I just wanted to fight for a medal and not come away empty-handed,” said the all-conquering Isaev. “So I went through to the final. Each fight was hard, psychologically and physically. We waited long for this medal and we all worked hard for it.”

Alfaga’s silver is only Niger’s second Olympic medal, the first having come at Munich 1972, where Issaka Dabore won a bronze in boxing. Discussing his historic achievement and the success of other African taekwondo fighters in Rio, he said: “My objective was to bring a second medal to my country. The Olympic Games is very, very hard. I couldn’t sleep at night because I’ve been thinking of the gold medal. We young Africans were able to prove that we are capable of doing things nobody believed in. We got five medals. That is really great.”

To the delight of the home crowd, Brazil’s Maicon Siqueira earned bronze to give the hosts a second Olympic taekwondo medal, while Beijing 2008 champion Cha Dongmin of the Republic of Korea collected the other bronze on offer.

Zheng outguns former champ Espinoza

Making the most of her height and reach against experienced two-time Olympic medallist Maria del Rosario Espinoza of Mexico, China’s Zheng Shuyin won the women’s +67kg final by a comfortable 5-1 margin. The world -73kg silver medallist, Zheng was delighted with her title-winning strategy: “I am very tall and my legs are longer than my opponents’. So when I attack, opponents can quickly get a counter-attack in and I can lose points. I have fought these opponents many times before. They know my strengths and how to defend themselves. I had to change my strategy a bit. I was tired, but my opponent was also tired. Given the way I was feeling, I think I did very well today.”

Silver medallist Espinoza now has a complete set of Olympic medals to her name, having won gold at Beijing 2008 and bronze at London 2012. Reigning world champion Bianca Walkden of Great Britain lost to Zhen in the semi-finals but recovered to take bronze, with the other bronze going to Jackie Galloway of the United States, who beat France’s two-time world champion Gwladys Épangue.