The ITF considers itself a traditional martial art while WTF considers itself a progressive martial sport with the Olympics as its primary goal. The traditionally oriented ITF uses the "chonji" forms originally established by General Choi Hong Hi. The WTF originally used "palgue" colored belt forms. There was one form for each of the eight-trigram patterns, called "gwe" (four of the eight gwe are shown on the Korean flag). Later, a new series of eight color belt forms called "taeguk" was developed (named after eum-yang symbol on the Korean flag). While the taeguk forms are now the standard in the WTF, many schools also teach the palgue forms.
ITF kicks are characterized by a wide trajectory with maximum reach (the classical or traditional technique). The movements and the exercises are performed with the typical ITF "sine wave" (an up-and-down body movement aiming at the increasing of power). When executing a technique, a characteristic hissing sound made by a sudden breathing out through the teeth to tighten the abdominal and protect inner organs in case of counter-attack. The ITF practices semi-contact sparring where hand attacks to the face and kicks to the groin are allowed, however, little or no contact is used.
WTF kicks are oriented toward sparring. The foot trajectory is as short as possible to increase speed and the moment of surprise. There is no "wave" movement. The exhalation is often soundless to hide the moment of attack. The WTF emphasizes full-contact competition style sparring, which is why many people call WTF Taekwondo a sport rather than a martial art. In the WTF, participants are not allowed to attack the face with hand techniques, to attack below the waist, or to grapple. Otherwise, they use full-contact techniques. They use a scoring system that emphasizes the real delivered power of the technique. Both organizations require competitors to wear protective equipment while training and competing.
If you ask a ITF practitioner to describe WTF stylists, you may hear:
- They do not have real power in their techniques, just fancy kicks and quick footwork.
- Everything is geared to competition, so the emphasis is on speed and scoring. Thus the techniques have little use in practical situations.
- Hand attacks are seldom used especially to the head.
- WTF president is a political figure who is not a Taekwondo practitioner.
- Patterns have no aesthetic value and are not emphasized.
- Kicks lack power which is why they do little breaking.
If you ask a WTF practitioner to describe ITF stylists, you may hear:
- They use old-fashion kicks that are not useful in sparring, e.g. too slow, use too much movement, leave you vulnerable, and use too much energy.
- Since they use light or no contact sparring, they would not survive in WTF sparring.
- Use hard blocks instead of avoidance.
- Low, wide stances slow techniques and telegraph movements.
- Few aerial kicks and little innovation, which lead to lower skill levels.
Although different in their Taekwondo philosophies, the two associations have several similarities. Due to their common origins, both place a heavy emphasis on graceful, but powerful, kicking techniques, and both use wood breaking as a test of both concentration and technique.
Some differences between traditional Taekwondo and sport Taekwondo are as follows:
- Traditional Taekwondo seeks self-development and spiritual improvement, while sport Taekwondo seeks superiority over an opponent—winning.
- Traditional Taekwondo reflects Eastern values while sport Taekwondo reflects Western values.
- Traditional Taekwondo is process-oriented, sport Taekwondo is result-oriented.
- Traditional Taekwondo is formalized, sport Taekwondo is not.
For true traditionalists, such as myself, the real Taekwondo is the one that developed in the major kwans throughout South Korea after World War II. It was combination of the Shotokan that had been learned by the kwan masters in Japan and what the masters had been able to learn about the ancient Korean art of Taekkon (of which little is known). All the kwan masters were equally responsible for the development of this new martial art; however, due to his positions and contacts within government and his ambition, Choi's version of Taekwondo became the most popular version used in the early years. Choi later declared himself the founder of Taekwondo. Although he certainly helped make Taekwondo the most popular martial art worldwide, he was not its sole founder.
Choi's early Taekwondo was Taekwondo at its purest since it had all the characteristics of the style developed by the kwans. Over the years, Choi and his students added their own beliefs to the ITF style of Taekwondo, such as the sine wave movement, knee spring, different patterns, etc. Leaders in the WTF style of Taekwondo had their own political and ideological reasons for making their version of Taekwondo a mostly kicking type of sport. If you read Choi's original 1965 book Taekwon-do, The Art of Self-Defense (the first English book on Taekwondo) you will find Taekwondo in its purest form, before power, politics, and greed changed it. Some other early Taekwondo books are
- Korean Karate (1968) by Duk Sung Son who took over the Chung-do-kwan 1951. The Chung-do-kwan was the first kwan to teach a native Korean style of martial art.
- Korean Karate Free Fighting Techniques (1968) by Sihak Henry Cho.
- Promise and Fulfillment in the Art of Taekwondo (1974) by Sang Kyo Shim.
- The Techniques of Taekwono-do (1975) by M. S. Too.
- Taekwondo-do (1975) by B. S. Huan.
- Tae Kwon Do, The Korean Marital Art (1976) by Richard Chun, a Kukkiwon master before it changed to the sport version of Taekwondo.
Since the break-up of the WTF and ITF, there have been many attempts to reunite the two organizations, but they have all failed. They are still rivals and remain in conflict and the ITF has broken into many factions after Choi's death, so it does not appear they will unite or even cooperate any time soon. However, there is no reason that Taekwondo cannot exist in the world as both a sport and an art.
Once Taekwondo arrived in the United States, it underwent more changes and became Americanized.