To figure this out, we must first take a look at the beginnings of this martial art. Taekwondo has its beginnings in South Korea dating back to the 1940s, developed after World War 2, when schools called Kwans began to open up around Korea. These kwans weren't all uniformly teaching the taekwondo we know today, and all had different styles of martial art that was being taught within them.
In 1952, after a martial arts demonstration by the military for South Korean president at the time Syngman Rhee, the president urged that the martial arts styles of the kwans be merged, so that both the military and civilian populations could have a uniform art to practice. Governing bodies were then formed by different entities, and although they served the same purpose, they had disagreements about certain aspects, political differences, and as such went into separate institutions.
The oldest and original institution is the Korea Taekwondo Association founded in 1959, and its main purpose was to facilitate the unification of Korean Martial arts. In 1966, the man who advocated the use of the name Taekwondo, Choi Hong Hi, established the International Taekwon-Do Federation, which was dedicated to institutionalizing a common style of Taekwondo.
Since Choi sought input on the unification even from North Korea, the South Korean government withdrew its support for the ITF in 1973. It then established Kukkiwon in 1973 as the new national academy for taekwondo and most rule sets for competition follow the Kukkiwon-style, also referred to as Olympic style, or sport style Taekwondo. Kukkiwon also resumed the actions of the original KTA and established World Taekwondo to promote the sport internationally.
Growth of Taekwondo Worldwide
We now go back to the original expansion of TKD into the world back starting in the 1950s. The original KTA members, masters of TKD, went out and started touring cities around the globe to spread the influence of TKD and to promote it as an international martial art and sport, so that it could gain traction more and therefore become more legitimized, more quickly.
In October of 1965, masters C. K. Han and J. S. Park traveled for the Middle East for the first time visiting Present-day Egypt (at the time, the United Arab Republic). They left influence there and also essentially planted the seed of this martial art in the region. This was very early on and one visit to Egypt would leave too much knowledge behind, especially about a new martial art that hadn't had much organization prior to this point.
Later on in the early ITF days, during late 1973, masters C. K. Choi, Y. I. Kong, J. S. Park, S. J. Park, and K. H. Rhee traveled to the middle east for a longer visit and left more about the updated aspects of Taekwondo, which was more developed by this point.
Taekwondo in the Middle East
Now let's take a look at how the Middle East has done on the top stage of TKD competition. Nowadays that's the Olympics, so we'll analyze how the Middle East (countries within it) have stacked up against the rest of the world.
TKD was officially established as a full medal sport in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and has since been an Olympic sport for the summer games.
In terms of countries we'd consider to be included in the Middle East, we'll include: Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Jordan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, and Qatar. There are others, however, these are the largest countries and also most of those mentioned are the only countries so far to claim a medal in TKD at the Olympic games.
The country with the most medals in the Middle East by far is Iran. They have 2 Gold medals, which ties Great Britain's and the US' Gold medal count. They also have one silver medal and 3 bronze medals for a total of 6 medals in TKD from Iran.
The country from the Middle East with the next most medals is Turkey, which actually has MORE medals than Iran, just not gold. They have obtained 1 Gold, 3 silvers, and 3 bronze medals for a total of 7 medals from the Olympiad.
The next Mid-East country on the medal count list is Azerbaijan, which also has a gold medal of its own, along with 2 bronzes for a total of 3 medals. Jordan, the next country, only has one medal, but it is a gold medal. This just shows the skill of these Middle Eastern martial artists as larger and richer countries like Russia, Canada, France or Germany, don't have ANY golds in taekwondo.
The last Middle Eastern country with any medals at all is Afghanistan, which makes the list with a pair of bronze medals. It should also be known that countries like Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, have all sent competitors to the Olympic Games for taekwondo, a feat in itself.
Why does the Middle East Excel in Taekwondo?
Taking in all of the facts about the success of taekwondo in the Middle East, the next question becomes...how? What is behind the success of these countries?
To find out, let's focus on the most successful Middle Eastern country concerning TKD, Iran.
In an article on Iran's status as a Tae Kwon Do powerhouse on the website of World Taekwondo, we get a sense of what makes the Iranians so skillful in this martial art. Seyed Mohammad Pouladgar, the president of the Iranian Taekwondo Federation attributes this success to the early introduction of taekwondo into children's lives.
"It is because of the cadet league championships that are held from the age of eight years old," he stated, also adding that the popularity of Taekwondo and the media attention it is given in Iran helps.
"This increases interest and positive feelings toward taekwondo to the Iranian public, thus, dojangs are running very actively as many people register and many dojangs support the taekwondo federation in Iran...With this kind of structure, cadets, juniors, and seniors get sustainable support and make good results."
The way the country has supported this sport and its growth has made it such a passionate undertaking for all of its people. Even children as young as 8 train to compete at championship level competition, so the hours of training and the significance it holds for some adds to the output of such high level practitioners.
Lastly, since Taekwondo is so popular in Iran, the level of training has risen with it, as the national team in Iran is highly competitive, its training camps infamously difficult. There is even a "House of Taekwondo" facility in Tehran, a regional training center for the high level competitiors. So when it comes down to it, there's nosecrets to the success of some of these countries other than their passion, extremely hard work, introduction to the sport at early ages, and constant training for competition. This should be motivation for anyone interested in Taekwondo, as it shows where hard work and constant practice gets you.