Beginning in 1945, shortly after the end of World War II, new martial arts schools called kwans opened in Seoul. These schools were established by Korean martial artists with backgrounds in Japanese, Chinese and Korean martial arts. The umbrella term traditional taekwondo typically refers to the martial arts practiced by the kwans during the 1940s and 1950s, though in reality the term “taekwondo” had not yet been coined at that time, and indeed each Kwan (martial art school) was practicing its own unique style of martial art. During this time taekwondo was also adopted for use by the South Korean military, which increased its popularity among civilian martial arts schools.
After witnessing a martial arts demonstration by the military in 1952, South Korean President Syngman Rhee urged that the martial arts styles of the kwans be merged. Beginning in 1955 the leaders of the kwans began discussing in earnest the possibility of creating a unified style of Korean martial arts. The name Tae Soo Do was used to describe this unified style. This name consists of the hanja 跆 tae “to stomp, trample”, 手 su “hand” and 道 do “way, discipline”.
Choi Hong Hi advocated the use of the name Tae Kwon Do, i.e. replacing su “hand” by 拳 kwon (Revised Romanization: gwon; McCune–Reischauer: kkwŏn) “fist”, the term also used for “martial arts” in Chinese (pinyin quán). The new name was initially slow to catch on among the leaders of the kwans. In 1959 the Korea Taekwondo Association (KTA) was established to facilitate the unification of Korean martial arts. In 1966, Choi broke with the KTA to establish the International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF) – a separate governing body devoted to institutionalizing his own style of taekwondo.
Cold War politics of the 1960s and 1970s complicated the adoption of ITF-style taekwondo as a unified style, however. The South Korean government wished to avoid North Korean influence on the martial art. Conversely, ITF president Choi Hong Hi sought support for the martial art from all quarters, including North Korea. In response, in 1973 South Korea withdrew its support for the ITF. The ITF continued to function as an independent federation, then headquartered in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Choi continued to develop the ITF-style, notably with the 1987 publication of his Encyclopedia of Taekwondo. After Choi’s retirement, the ITF split in 2001 and then again in 2002 to create three separate federations each of which continues to operate today under the same name.
In 1973 the South Korean government’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism established the Kukkiwon as the new national academy for taekwondo. Kukkiwon now serves many of the functions previously served by the KTA, in terms of defining a government-sponsored unified style of taekwondo. In 1973 the KTA and Kukkiwon supported the establishment of the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF, renamed to World Taekwondo in 2017 due to confusion with the initialism) to promote taekwondo specifically as an international sport. WT competitions employ Kukkiwon-style taekwondo. For this reason, Kukkiwon-style taekwondo is often referred to as WT-style taekwondo, sport-style taekwondo, or Olympic-style taekwondo, though in reality the style is defined by the Kukkiwon, not the WTF.
Since 2000, taekwondo has been one of only two Asian martial arts (the other being judo) that are included in the Olympic Games. It started as a demonstration event at the 1988 games in Seoul, a year after becoming a medal event at the Pan Am Games, and became an official medal event at the 2000 games in Sydney. In 2010, taekwondo was accepted as a Commonwealth Games sport.