A Lack of Olympic Spirit

This morning, the men’s Olympic under 80 kg Taekwondo competition takes place. However, the British competitor widely regarded as the world’s best fighter in that category will not be taking part. Instead, a competitor ranked 59th in the world will be fighting in his place. Neither the British Taekwondo Association, nor the British Olympic association, nor the World Taekwondo Federation come out of the affair looking good. In particular, the latter two bodies seem to have shown either a basic ignorance of human nature, or a wilful refusal to resolve a gross injustice.

Aaron Cook, the leading athlete in the class on world rankings and the current European Taekwondo champion was not selected by the British Taekwondo Association. This somewhat surprising decision becomes less surprising when you know that last year, due to dissatisfaction with the British Taekwondo Association’s training programme, Cook left and arranged his own coaching and performance regime.

Leading figures in the British Olympic Association were clearly concerned about the motives of the British Taekwondo Association at some point. It is not hard to see that there is a massive potential conflict of interest where the British Taekwondo Association is responsible for selecting the competitors and the selection, and success, of Cook outside the official training programme would cast a negative light on the British Taekwondo Association’s training methods.

The British Olympic Association did attempt to intervene by initially rejecting the candidate put forward by the British Taekwondo Association and requiring the selection panel to be reconvened and held in the presence of an observer. However, the type of scrutiny applied by the British Taekwondo Association, and subsequently by the World Taekwondo Federation appears to have been of the wrong sort. Both bodies appear to have concentrated on whether the correct procedures were followed. The problem with focussing on procedures is that it is possible to follow some procedures to the letter, yet still come out with a biased result.

The reason that procedures alone are often insufficient is that human reasoning is not entirely transparent, though we may think that it is. It is well established in a wide range of areas, from politics to the law, that the risk of bias makes it important for a potentially biased decision maker to step down from making a decision. Even after a decision has been taken and reasons given for it, the mere fact that the decision maker was biased is grounds to challenge the decision. If reasoning was entirely transparent, there would be no need for decision makers to ever step down, because one could just look at the reasoning.

Furthermore, it is also well established that once a decision maker has made a certain decision, they will tend to stick to that decision when required to make it again. It is not hard to see why. If the British Taekwondo Association had subsequently selected Cook, it would have been an implicit admission that their first decision was biased, an admission that they would not have wanted to make.

Despite these pretty obvious factors, neither the British Olympic Association, nor the World Taekwondo Federation seem to have taken any action to address them. Though it may have caused some ruffled feathers in the world of Taekwondo, I suggest that the British Olympic Association should have appointed an independent panel to follow the selection process.

There is also the prospect of further such conflicts of interest in the future. Cook will no doubt seek to be included in Team GB’s Olympic Squad for the next games. Whether he will still be fighting at the level he is currently will remain to be seen. However, the issues with the British Taekwondo Association will no doubt prevail unless there is some reconciliation between the camps. If there is not, these problems will need to be addressed in the interests of fairness. An independent selection panel seems the only way forward.

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