More Than the Other Guy: A Brazilian Taekwondo Fighter Prepares for the Olympic Games

Fightland Blog

By Gabriel Leão

Image via Guilherme Cezário Félix

The sound of his feet striking the leather bag surrounds the gym; his face remains umoved. These are exercises that 25-year-old Guilherme Cezário Félix has known since his teenage years, when his father, a taekwondo enthusiast, returned to the mat after a hiatus and took him along to training sessions. Félix is the Brazilian Taekwondo team’s heavyweight, and he is currently preparing himself for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Despite his position, he wasn’t particularly well-known in his country until 40-year-old legendary celebrity MMA champion Anderson Silva came into the Taekwondo scene, eyeing the spot Félix, ranked 13th in the world, had his sights on. 

“Let’s stop fooling around! The majority of taekwondo athletes and I are fed up with this story of Anderson Silva trying out for the Olympic Games. He has the right to try, just as any other affiliated and officiated athlete, and many are taking this seriously, but for me it’s nothing more than a joke,” Félix posted on his Instagram account last April, catching the eye of the Brazilian media.  His words about Anderson Silva are harsh, and he still believes that this is nothing more than a “personal marketing” move. “A fight is a fight and every fighter knows it. I really don’t know how much he is committed to dedicating himself to taekwondo, but I believe that he will be seen as any other adversary that I must defeat, as in any other match (in order to stay in the team)”.

As of last week, Anderson Silva no longer wants to participate in the Olympic Games, but the situation drew attention to the current top dog of the heavyweight division while simultaneously shining a light on sport’s politics and structure in Brazil.

Félix's eminence in competitive sports came in 2008. Already a black belt, he moved from Vitória in the state of Espírito Santo to the city of Piracicaba in the metropolitan area of São Paulo. Neither a world-famous metropolis such as the state’s capital of the same name nor as touristic as Rio de Janeiro, the place fit his needs, with Coach Frederico Mitookato in charge of refining his skills and teaching him new techniques. Now he has access to a better structure and it is certainly no disadvantage to not have to endure the traffic jams of the big cities, a perk that saves him valuable training time. A member of the Brazilian team since 2011.  he fondly remembers his first trip abroad for the Junior World Championship in 2006 in Vietnam--something his family paid out of pocket for because he had no sponsors, a reality he shares with many of his compatriots.

Many athletes live in conditions similar to Félix, so the arrival of Anderson Silva divides opinions. Youngsters favor his entrance to the tryouts, while the Confederation's president, Carlos Fernandes, seems to be upset about Anderson’s sudden withdrawal. Meanwhile, to the 2005 female middleweight world champion Natália Falavigna, Anderson Silva is “a major name in the world of sports and if he is coming to help it’s very appreciated, but he must go through every process any other athlete would go through to obtain his place in a legitimate way.” She affirms Anderson should be evaluated to see not only if he is the best competitor in Brazil, but also how he will perform when facing foreign rivals. “He is an MMA champion, a professional sport that is trending among young Brazilians, and he put fighting sports in front of our people. To draw his image closer to our sport would be a good marketing move if the opportunity was there,” says Diogo Silva, the Rio 2007 Pan American Games gold medalist and Olympic athlete Diogo Silva, who, like Favigna, is a big figure in the sport. She shares with her the country’s best international taekwondo achievements.

For Brazilians, The Spider is an icon and this is a country in which celebrities tend to be above sports, arts and other areas. But for Félix, outside his family circle there are few “idols,” a word that he rarely uses “because it’s not enough just to know what an athlete has achieved, you also need to know his human side in order to really figure out who he is.” The name that comes to his mind is the cutting-edge three-times F-1 champion Ayrton Senna (1960-1990) a national hero in Brazil and a name The Spider compares himself to (along with legendary soccer player Pelé).

Caught between a game of kicks and power struggle

There isn’t a grand plan for a big push of Taekwondo among Brazilians, Guilherme Félix believes, and he sees work flourishing more in local gyms than from actual initiatives by clubs or cities, showing the lack of a “more consolidated management to make it more widespread, with short and long term plans." Another point to note in Brazil is a soccer culture that is omnipresent in the media, being rivaled only by soap operas. The heavyweight observes it as an aspect that his sport can’t go up against but that could be countered by creating a “culture of recognition for other modalities that struggle to represent their native countries in every corner of the planet."

To better understand this environment, Brazil’s ESPN reporter Marcelo Gomes sums up the formation and current state of Taekwondo by saying: “I really believe that in the past, during the rule of Koreans, the worse things were amateurism and authoritarian ways of managing. Then enter the new bosses who never earned a salary and saw the chance to siphon public money for personal enrichment in the Incentive for Sports Laws, in the Agnelo Piva Law and also from the support from sponsorships of state enterprises like Petrobras. In the past, there have been commissioners who would line their pockets with funds for sports development. Today the managers want to take the money that should be used to improve it."

Taekwondo arrived in Brazil in 1970, taking root in the metropolis of São Paulo through the 6th Dan Master Sang Min Cho, who was officially sent by the International Taekwon-Do Federation as ordered by 10th Dan Master Choi Hong Hi a.k.a General Choi. Then, a very common event in sports associations happened: there was a rupture in the power structure, and along came the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) proclaiming to be the rightful organization of the sport, setting its headquarters in South Korea since the ITF had changed its base to Canada. This move affected the implementation of the discipline on Brazilian soil. Today the ITF is recognized by the South Korean government, but not by the Olympic Committee and the Brazilian organ ruling Taekwondo is attached to the WTF.

In a move to probably get rid of the old Korean masters who Gomes points out as authoritarian, the current president of the Brazilian Taekwondo Federation, Carlos Fernandes, passed a new statute that forbids foreigners to command any state federation, which invalidates them to achieve the post of national president also. According to the reporter, this happened because of a “monopoly dispute”, since at the time Asians were making it hard for Brazilians, leading to appeals for a change in hierarchy. “The current managers are experts in frauds. One example was the fraud that happened in the statute and that was recently approved in second instance by the Justice System of Rio de Janeiro. They changed the statute ousting the oppositional federations and also faked it to ensure that the Koreans would never come back to power. There are no nice guys in this tale. There are wolves trying to take out money from a sport that has stopped in time."

Natália Falavigna felt this stagnation despite being more recognized by society and having new sponsors because of her achievements, which enabled her to “travel a little bit more in order to evolve.” She also sees, however, that her sport has not developed as a whole and no one has taken the chance to build a more solid structure.

Diogo Silva’s name in sports and Brazilian society is associated with effort, black emancipation and ethical behavior. The featherweight gold medalist in the 2007 Pan American games states that “in Brazil, Taekwondo has always been tainted and that from 1970 to 2015 there have always been problems: embezzlement, fraud, illegal public procurement, among other crimes. The Brazilian Confederation is an institution without credibility and the negative image repels capable professionals. Because of this, businessmen won’t invest in the sport.”

Silva came in fourth place in Athens 2004 and made the Black Panthers’ gesture against the lack of support for sports in Brazil. Since that day, he says that there were no changes because he views the ideology of sports in his country remaining the same—a “fake welfare system,” based on people’s poverty to build a political platform and grab votes. So far, the country still hasn’t seen a real program for sports in primary schools and athletes being admitted into colleges. In his eyes the country has a “Ministry of Sports based on the exchange of political favors” and everything done for the 2007 Pan American games was “demolished” and can’t be used as a base for Olympic athletes. He affirms that this is a waste of public money that, had it been well-managed, could have maintained two generations of Olympic athletes.

This is something that happens in other sports. It is a behavior inherited from the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. “Look at what they do to the top guy Diogo, who came close to getting Bronze in the Olympic Games (Athens and London). He is competing using his own resources. The Venceslau brothers (two taekwondo fighters) and Natália Falavigna were shut out when they started asking for improvements. Diogo is the only Olympian still active who says what he really thinks, but he pays a heavy toll for it.” ESPN’s Gomes believes Brazil claims that it got rid of the military-imposed repression decades ago, but the same behavior is alive in sports.

“The generals of sports do not dress in uniforms or torture people as in the past. But the program is evident. Chairmen that don’t have a salary perpetuate themselves in power for decades by negotiating in favors. National chairmen buying out state chairmen, buying sports material, meeting in luxury hotels and going on trips in a never ending game of interests. Athletes do not vote and therefore aren’t able to choose democratically their representatives in power. Ask anybody if they would work 20 years for free.”

Brazil’s federal police is investigating if the Brazilian Taekwondo Confederation was misuse of approximately R$ 3 mi (US$ 957.600) that came from the Ministry of Sports in 2011. The money should have been used for equipment, but it is suspected that it was not spent properly. The police apprehended documents at the headquarters of the CBTKD in Rio de Janeiro. The institution says that it opens its negotiations to the general public via the internet, and is collaborating with the investigation.

Gomes proclaims that at the end of this chain is Carlos Alberto Nuzman, president of the Brazilian Olympic Committee (COB), who in the 80s built the structure for Brazilian volleyball to become a world powerhouse – he is a former player himself—“but then never let another candidate run against him, with elections that aren’t clearly divulged and happen mostly at short notice in hotel basements. He is the chief of a travel agency with over-the-top prices so it can be said it is overpriced. He is the one who points out which law or accounting firm will be responsible for each federation”.

Diogo Silva believes this whole situation will reach its highest point during the Olympic Games of next year, and will leave as a legacy the enrichment of Public Transport groups responsible for making the Bus Rapid Transit, those who financed the mayor’s candidacy, more sexual tourism, sewage running through the Guanabara Bay, eviction of poor communities close to the arenas—while at the most it will turn Rio into a tourism reference, as was done in Barcelona (1992). “Brazil held the 2002 South-American Games, 2007 Pan American Games, 2011 Military Games, Soccer’s 2013 Confederations Cup and the 2014 World Cup and still shows no sports development plan,” Diogo Silva asks. Falavigna is more positive and expects a “great spectacle and a good performance from Brazil.” She believes that the continuity of investments relies on results. 


Check out these related stories:

Anderson Silva Buries Olympic Dream, Ignores Confederation

The Guy Who Let Anderson Try Out for the Olympics Accused of Corruption

Anderson Meets Opposition from Brazilian Taekwondo Star, Remains Humble