FUJAIRAH, UAE (Nov. 24) – Sport referees are in a lose-lose situation: They are overlooked and ignored when things go well, furiously blamed when things go badly. For this reason, you might expect a litany of complaints when you speak to refs off the field of play.
However, you won’t hear any negativity from WT’s 2018 Referees of the Year – Ksenia Choucha of Belarus and Mohamed Adel Abdelfattah of Egypt.
“In general, taekwondo is an amazing sport: We have only good people,” said Choucha, speaking the day after the Gala Awards night where the two had received their accolades at the National Theater of Fujairah. “I don’t know how it works, but it works: Everyone – athletes, coaches, referees – has passion and big hearts, they are all positive people. Angry people do not stay long in taekwondo. They come and they go.”
All for the love of taekwondo
Both refs have been in taekwondo for a long time, and both were players before turning to officiating. Choucha also coaches children (including her own daughter) and deaf children. Both also have children who have taken up the sport.
“My son is also playing taekwondo, he is watching every game and he loves the players and he asks me, ‘Why did you give a gamjeon for this one?’” he said. “So I learn from others – my children and my colleagues! This is experience of life.”
“It is very important to show that you can reach any kind dream in your life – work harder dream bigger!” she said. “We see on TV people who did a good job, and they get professional and high level in some field or some subject – but that is far but someone close to you. This shows that if you work hard, you can catch the dream.”
And of course, international referees get to enjoy international travel. “For me the planet is very small; we come from winter to summer, from one continent to another,” Choucha said. “It’s amazing, it’s great – you want to stay in this moment.”
Changing the rules, upgrading the spectacle
However, with WT constantly tweaking rules in order to upgrade taekwondo’s spectacle, referees are under pressure to keep up to date with an ever-evolving game.
“We do a lot of seminars and meetings and train a lot to achieve this goal of improving taekwondo – this is important to keep us learning,” said Abdelfattah. “It is not so easy – we try to do our best. Referee mistakes are part of the game, but we try in our heart to improve.”
While the PSS has obviated the potential for judging errors, another issue for the referees, who wield the powerful gamjeon penalties, is the rising standard of elite-level taekwondo athletes across the board.
“I don’t think the referee can influence the game more than 25 years ago, I think it is the same, but the level of the athletes is getting higher and they are reaching the same level, so it often happens that the game is point-to-point,” said Choucha. “Years ago, the athletes were different levels, they were not so similar, but now one or two gamjeon can influence the game.”
In terms of changes to the game, it not just rules. In recent years WT has been upgrading the presentation surrounding the game – rock music between rounds, flashinng LED displays, light shows, and more razzmatazz overall.
“Now the games are more and more dynamic and the venues are more bright, fresher – it’s amazing!” said Choucha. “From competition to competition we have something new – how we organize the court, the positions around the court.
“We are developing every day and I want to thank those behind the cameras, they work hard to create these beautiful competitions like Wuxi and Grand Slam – it is amazing!” added Abdelfattah. “If it is like this, we will be a success in Tokyo.”
Choucha compares the organization of competitions to a well-engineered machine with all moving parts working in synch.” I have to thank our leadership because what I like nowadays in taekwondo is the connections – the connection between athletes, coaches, referees, organizing committees,” Choucha said. “Now we see this is all working together like automobile!”
As a result of these elements, taekwondo is becoming a benchmark among its peers. “Our sport has become the most important martial art, and other martial arts are learning from us how to manage championships,” said Abdelfattah. “I am very proud of this.”
Bonding across borders
So what makes a great ref? They should be “professional, passionate, honest and confident” suggested the Belorussian; they need to be “educated, transparent, focused and well behaved,” reckoned the Egyptian.
They also need to be friendly – because what is evident at every WT event is that there are powerful bonds of camaraderie among the international referee corps.
“The atmosphere is real friendship, and this helps the work,” said Choucha. “We spend time together, we spend a week together, and this helps us understand each other on the court – it’s team work.”
Abdelfattah concurred. “This really comes from (WT Referee Committee Chairman] Song-chul Kim, he treats us like brothers and sisters, he never says ‘No’ to anyone – he is like a big brother,” he said. “We feel comfortable staying with the refs, we talk the same language: We are a very good family on court or off court.”
The international friendships among the refs have generated a curious linguistic quirk. “It is funny: When we are in a small group, we can speak in 5-6 languages as we all know a few words from this or that language,” said Choucha. “You can’t create this atmosphere intentionally. It happens by itself.”
For both these top refs, it all comes down to people.
“This is why I continue to work in this amazing sport,” Choucha said. “It is inspirational because you have the opportunity to meet great people from all over the world.”