Argentina Takes Football Approach to Popularize Taekwondo

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SEOUL, Korea (March 10, 2016) – The Argentinian football team is one of the most formidable on earth, one that has produced global superstars of the caliber of Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona.

Now, the Confederacion Argentina de Taekwondo is hoping to bring a little of this magic to taekwondo.

“My mission is to make taekwondo the most important sport at a national level,” said Ignacio Gontan, 46, a fifth-dan in taekwondo who is a banker by profession who has been, since October 2015, the president of the Confederacion Argentina de Taekwondo. “My plan is to develop and work as we have been doing -with marketing communications: Argentina is really broadcasting live taekwondo competitions and that is a really strong way to get the word out.”

TV, he reckons, is the magic bullet when it comes to embedding a sport into the national mindset. “I am thinking that even here in Korea, there is not that much TV and radio broadcasting of taekwondo, but in Argentina it is live TV and radio,” he said. “This gets a lot of publicity.”

But it is not just hardware: The confederation is also investing in the software, having bought in a professional football journalist Guido Cristiani. “We made a contract with him,” said Gontan. “He will help with all the contacts and approaches he has.”

Naturally, football is Argentina’s most popular sport – and like football, taekwondo is a poor man’s activity: It does not require much money to do. That makes it ideal for society’s “have nots.”

“My executive board has, for four years, reached a lot of places that a lot of sports have not reached in Argentina,” Gontan said. “A lot of the poorer places, a lot of hard places; helping people – homeless people – get off the streets and off drugs.”

Politically, Argentina is divided into 24 provinces. In 2011, taekwondo only reached 15 of those provinces; now it is represented in 22, with a population of 250,000 practitioners – partly thanks to more stable finances in the confederation. “It has really developed,” Gontan said. “We have succeeded in getting a stable financial status – I am a banker! It is easier for me than for others.”

On a recent visit to the WTF headquarter in Seoul Gontan was pleased to meet an old friend – WTF Secretary General Jinbang Yang.  Yang was formerly one of taekwondo itinerant masters, travelling the world offering seminars, and it was on one of those seminars that the two first met.  The meeting was not, however, entirely cordial.

“I was an international referee and I attended the first referee course held in Cuba in 1991 and Master Yang was the instructor,” he recalled. “Master Yang made me cut my hair – taekwondo was a martial art and an international referee with long hair was not allowed so he sent me to a hair stylist!”

The Argentinian, however, did not actually get his hair cut. “I tricked him because I tied it up!” Gontan said. “When I told him about it today, he remembered and laughed.”

Gontan was visiting the WTF while on a special cultural tour of Korea sponsored by the Korea Foundation: it invited him after seeing the prominence of taekwondo on Argentinian TV.  He had some advice for Korea during a meeting at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. “I said that taekwondo is a very strong cultural item, you get to learn discipline and the Korean language,” he said. “The government is trying to spread culture through K-pop, but music comes and goes. Taekwondo, and the discipline that it provides you, does not go away.”

During his visit to the WTF, Gontan briefed staffers on the status of Argentina’s hosting of the Youth Olympics in 2018. “It is the most important exhibition of sport in the world at the amateur level,” he said. “For me, that is it; it is not elitist.”

Gontan hopes to leverage the work he has been doing in Argentina to spread the word to the world on taekwondo at the event. “What we did over the last four years was to have a really strong presence of taekwondo, with a focus on TV,” he said. “That is marketing PR.”

And what should athletes, coaches and spectators who travel to Argentina expect in 2018?

“Argentina is a beautiful country, we have four seasons, we have mountains, we have cities and our gastronomy is plentiful,” he said. “And we have beautiful people!”