Taekwondo: Asia Bailey eyes place in Olympics

Asia Bailey, left, is aiming for the rostrum at this weekend's Commonwealth Championships at Edinburgh's Meadowbank Sports Centre
Asia Bailey, left, is aiming for the rostrum at this weekend's Commonwealth Championships at Edinburgh's Meadowbank Sports Centre
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A KICK to the body earns one point, two if it is of the spinning variety. The rewards are three and four if the blow is administered to an opponent’s head. Pretty soon, what is currently worth four will be awarded five, so keen are the guardians of taekwondo to ensure that its killer move is encouraged.

A flying foot to the head is the sport’s ultimate, crowd-pleasing manoeuvre. Asia Bailey, a softly-spoken 16-year-old from Falkirk, will be among around 600 athletes with that in mind at Edinburgh’s Meadowbank Sports Centre on Friday and Saturday, when the Commonwealth Championships are held in Scotland for the first time.

“You’re kicking as hard as you can,” says Bailey. “When you go for a head shot, you’re trying to knock them out. So there is an element of danger, which is pretty exciting. I’ve always been a thrillseeker, always loved rollercoasters. It gives me a real buzz every time I go out there. I get nervous. Everybody does. But when you score with a spinning kick to the head, the crowd goes mad. It’s great for the audience.”

Some have voiced concerns about the safety of taekwondo but, as defenders of the sport stress, it is played in a controlled environment, with chest and head guards, as well as strict rules that prohibit, for example, punches to the face. Bailey’s father, David, who is the director of this weekend’s event, says that injuries tend to be minor. “While the thought of someone kicking you might put some people off, the fact is that, when you learn how to do it properly, and learn how to defend yourself, it’s probably safer than playing football,” he explains.

All of which debate only compounds what appears to be growing interest in the sport. With 70 million players in 204 countries, it is the world’s most popular martial art, one that requires more speed and agility than the likes of judo and karate. President Obama, Kylie Minogue and Cruz Beckham are among its celebrity players.

It has been a full Olympic sport since 2000 – Jade Jones won gold for Great Britain at London 2012 – and it now wants full recognition by the Commonwealth Games. That prospect will grow if the forthcoming event – awarded to Edinburgh on the back of Glasgow 2014 – is deemed a success.

Master David Bailey 7th Dan, a former British champion, will oversee proceedings. It will be a proud moment for the Liverpudlian who took up the sport at school, when he was a shy teenager looking for confidence. Now, some of his pupils have similar needs at the Central Taekwondo Academy in Falkirk, which he founded 21 years ago. “I get an awful lot of parents sending kids along because they are in bullying situations. It’s a great discipline, and not just because it helps you to look after yourself. It also raises self-esteem. It instils confidence in kids.”

He loves the culture of taekwondo, with its roots in Korea. Between sparring, it is polite and respectful of seniority. The sport’s five tenets – courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit – are the products of a country where shop assistants bow to customers and two hands – look, no weapon – are offered in friendship.

Bailey asks his students to perform similar rituals. “If people came and watched, they would see that we’re not just kicking each other in the head all day,” he says. “There’s a lot more to it. When I’ve been to Korea, I always tell my students stories about it. Taekwondo is in the schools, the police force, the armed services. It’s a big part of their culture.”

If Bailey had his way, its principles would also pervade Scottish society. He thinks we could learn a lot from the Far East, as does his wife, Angie, who has a thing about China. One of their earliest trips as a married couple was to Pakistan. When it came to naming one of their three daughters, well, you know the rest.

“I love my name, just because it’s so unique,” says Asia. “Nobody’s heard it before. It makes you feel a little bit special. They came up with my name because that was their life before they had me. It’s what they loved. Now, I love it as well.”

Eventually, Asia wants to visit the temples, like her parents have, but for the moment she is content to visit Korea on business. Five times already she has been there as part of Team GB’s World Class Performance Programme, with which she is a full-time, UK Sport-funded athlete, based in Manchester.

She is shaping up to be a pioneer for the sport in Scotland. A former gymnast and dancer – she once performed on stage at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall – she has the flexibility, co-ordination and, most of all, dedication to achieve what no compatriot ever has. In 2012, she became the first Scot to win a medal (bronze) in the world junior championships. In May of this year, she pulled off the same trick at the European seniors, despite being barely old enough to compete. And all of this was done after recovering from a cruciate ligament injury that tested her mental resilience to the limit.

She is a star in the making. At 14, she was nominated for the 2012 BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year award. More recently, as part of the Jaguar Academy of Sport Mentoring and Education Programme, she sparred with Rio Ferdinand.

Whether she can also hook up with Rio 2016 is another matter. She has emerged on to the senior scene a bit late to gather the required ranking points for the next Olympic Games, but she has plenty of time to fulfil her ambition.

“Any Olympics would be amazing to get to,” she says. “Rio was the goal, and it’s still possible, but realistically, my dream is now Tokyo [in 2020]. That’s what I want to peak for. My mum and dad have worked so hard with the club... I want to make them proud. I want to represent Great Britain and I want to make history for Scotland.”