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Songchul Kim, Chairman, WT Referee Committee: A Sharp Eye, a Strong Hand and Sound Judgment

DSC_1559 copy“I was a national level player and my dream was to be in the Olympics one day,” said Songchul Kim, stating the hope of greatness that inspires every taekwondo athlete. His dream came true - but when he finally trod the Olympic mats, in London 2012 and later in Rio 2016, he was not attired in dobok and hogu, he was wearing a shirt and tie. “When I made it to the Olympics, it was as a referee – not as a player!”


Refereeing clearly has its own rewards. And in September, the 49-year-old Canadian was rewarded with the ultimate position in taekwondo refereeing, when WT President Chungwon Choue appointed him.


“I was honored,” Kim, who had been a committee vice chairman since 2015, said of his appointment. “I was very fortunate to be given this opportunity, and I want to thank the people all around me for giving me the chance to help develop the game.”


Kim is shouldering a weighty responsibility, for his appointment comes at a time when taekwondo rules have undergone significant change.


Following controversies at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, WT adopted a range of technologies – notably the electronic PSS and Instant Video Replays – to obviate errors in refereeing and judging. The technologies were successfully deployed in both London 2012 and Rio 2016, but in early 2017, WT changed its rules to make a more dynamic, more free-flowing game. The new rules put more decision-making power back into the hands of the referees. This means that referee judgment has to be better than ever


“The referee has to be sure and confident about giving a gamjeom, otherwise the ref should think twice as it is plus one point to an opponent right away,” Kim admitted. With the new rules still in their early phase, a key priority is instilling consistency. “Calling gamjeoms and points for punches should be consistent,” he added. “Consistency leads to fair judging. It is very important!”


However, WT’s international referees are now so well trained, that there are few complaints from the mats, he added: “I think we are honest and well trained and the coaches appreciate this: We are getting minimal coach complaints, so I think it is good, and it is going to get better and better.”


DSC_1526 copyKim himself got started taekwondo for the classic reason that draws so many to the sport: “I started when I was five years old,” he said. “I got beaten up by an older kid - like all kids are! - so my mom took me to a taekwondo school.”



Kim’s parents emigrated to Canada when he was 16. Kim kept on with the art, becoming a national-level player in his adopted nation. Today, he owns and operates a taekwondo school in Burnaby, Canada – and indeed, it was Kim’s behind-the-scenes connections led (in part) to the highly successful World Junior Championships being hosted by the Canadian city in December 2016.


He got his start in refereeing in 1994. “One of my seniors asked me to try refereeing as it is very important: without refs, there would be no competition,” he recalled. “As I started, I guess I got addicted and I wanted to go further, onto a bigger stage.”


He did indeed, move onto a bigger stage – once again, at the urging of a senior. “I was doing like national level refereeing and one of my seniors said, ‘You are a pretty good ref, why not take it a step further?’ I had a chance at the 1999 Edmonton World Championships, so I took the course and became an international referee.”


In taekwondo - as in every sport – refereeing can be risky and thankless task. Firstly, the ref has no opportunity to win medals, prize money or national glory. Secondly, he or she is subject to the ire of coaches, players and fans every time he or she makes a controversial or unpopular decision. Thirdly, WT international referees are unpaid volunteers, so receive no financial reward. So why do they do it?


“Once you get into refereering, there is enjoyment when you make the right call so that the better player wins the game, and then you look at them doing the joyful celebrations,” he said. “Words cannot describe it - it is just a great feeling.”


Moreover, taekwondo’s referees are a tight team who clearly enjoy each other’s company. “I enjoy watching taekwondo and I enjoy hanging out with people who enjoy taekwondo,” Kim said – but emphasizes that refereeing is very much business before pleasure. “Like coaches and players, the referees spend a lot of time together, and the fun part is before or after the competition,” he said. “But the fun part should not be the priority; our priority is officiating.”


Kim currently has a pool of approximately 1,000 active international referees to choose from to officiate WT tournaments around the world. He sees his main task now as ensuring quality, rather than expanding quantity, but will also be focusing on equality in continental representation. “Global equality is important,” he said. “I don’t want referees just from Europe or just from Asia.”


Two key issues he will be focusing on are gender – WT successfully employed a 50-50 gender ratio in its referee corps in Rio – and age – to ensure there is an ideal blend of youth and experience officiating on the mats. “Gender equality is very important,” he said. “President Choue also emphasizes developing young referees to have a good harmony with all the experienced referees, like mentors.”


Songchul Kim during the head of team meeting for London 2017 World Taekwondo Grand Prix


Songchul Kim during the head of team meeting for London 2017 World Taekwondo Grand Prix


Upgrading referee training and education courses, refreshers and certification will be critical parts of his role. And with taekwondo being a sport that offers the promise of health and fitness, audiences at WT events should expect to see not just fit-looking players, but also fit-looking referees. “Nowadays, the game is so dynamic, if you lose your focus for one second lots of things can happen, and when you get in to break the fight, you need to really move as quickly as possible,” he said. “So physical conditioning is important; a taekwondo referee has to move a lot.”


Of course, the qualities of a good referee go beyond the physical; Kim lists ethics, fair play, knowledge, experience and mental focus. But whenever the subject of refereeing is mentioned, the possibility of human error has to be raised. Kim admits that referees will inevitably make mistakes. The key thing, he insists, is that these mistakes become learning opportunities.


“As time goes by, I can see things I could not see before through making little mistakes here and there: Then it becomes mine,” he said. “Just by hearing from others, you can’t get it.” He encourages all referees to discuss any errors they make openly so that all can benefit from their experience. “If you are honest, everyone can learn, but if you try to hide it or blame it on someone else, we are not going anywhere,” he said. “That is how I want to educate my referees.”


During his tenure, Kim has a clear aspiration. “I want worldwide innovation so that taekwondo is seen as a leading sport for objective and fair officiating,” he said. “I want World Taekwondo to be viewed among other sports organizations as a leader for referee development and reputation.”