European athletes won 18 medals at the Olympic Games – more than all other continents combined. Two European women and three European men were crowned Olympic champions in Tokyo. For the first time a European nation – Russia – managed to win two gold medals. All of this suggests that Taekwondo has particularly good prerequisites for success in Europe. The European Taekwondo Union (ETU) made a major contribution to this. We spoke to Athanasios Pragalos, who has been President of the ETU since 1999 and has thus significantly shaped the entire Olympic history of Taekwondo in Europe.
TA: President Pragalos, what does Taekwondo mean to you?
Athanasios Pragalos: First of all, thank you for the opportunity to do this interview with you! For me Taekwondo is my life’s work. It has been the center of my life for many years and I hope that it stays that way for many years to come!! I just love the sport, the people and the work that I am doing!
TA: What has been your life experience in this discipline? What motivated you to participate in this important position of President in one of the most important organizations of this sport, the ETU?
Athanasios Pragalos: I started as an athlete and then became International Referee. I was president of the Greek Taekwondo Federation and after that Secretary-General of ETU. We were in those days not the same organization as we are now, but I was very much motivated to shape ETU. Therefore in 1999 I was elected as President and started with my work for ETU and tried to realize my vision for Taekwondo in Europe. Each time when I see athletes doing Taekwondo, either in their clubs, at competitions or at the Olympics like in Tokyo, I get so much energy and motivation to do a better job! Those athletes need good leadership with a vision for their future!
TA: What do you think is the reason that Taekwondo has such a strong presence in the Olympic program?
Athanasios Pragalos: There are a few things that are important. First, our sport is exciting! The rules that under the leadership of Dr. Choue as president of WT are implemented make Taekwondo competition very exciting. I think watching the Olympics this year was absolutely amazing. Great fights, unexpected winners and a lot of emotion! Second, it is not only one country winning all medals like back in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Nowadays, every country has a fair chance of winning an Olympic medal! Third, age does not matter in Taekwondo! We saw the Spanish youngster – at the beginning of her global career – Adriana Cerezo Inglesias winning the Olympic silver medal. But also, in 2012, Carlo Molfetta at the end of his career won the Olymic gold medal. In our sport everything is possible.
TA: Do you have any figures on the number of Taekwondo practitioners in Europe?
Athanasios Pragalos: It is really hard to say. Some people say tens of millions, other say a few million. At the end of the day, I think its somewhere in between 1-2 million I believe!
TA: Which are the countries in Europe that have the most Taekwondo practitioners?
Athanasios Pragalos: Russia, Spain, Italy and Turkey are I think the largest countries with a Taekwondo population, We don’t have good numbers though as we do not register the athletes in all countries.
TA: Could you tell us, which are the countries of this continent that have more institutional support to develop the sport of Taekwondo.
Athanasios Pragalos: Those countries that win medals at the Olympics have the opportunity to get government funding for their programs in the country. Great Britain, Spain, France and Turkey all have full time professional training programs in which their athletes can fully focus themselves on their sport, their education and all things that are important to become the best. Also, ETU is now working on a program for a performance center as we believe that all athletes should be able to follow their dreams. With the center, we hope we can help with that!
TA: With the Covid 19 pandemic, we have had very difficult moments for humanity, how do you feel that the Taekwondo community in Europe has handled this situation?
Athanasios Pragalos: I think all the countries did what they could. Many events were cancelled due to government regulations and also, we as ETU have suffered due to the pandemic. Many events were cancelled and this had a great impact on our staff. We tried to review the situation in each country with which we had scheduled an ETU event. We first started with competition again in Croatia last year. With the right protocols, adaptations and support we were able to manage the event satisfactorily and it give us the opportunity to organize more events!
TA: Of the 32 medals in Tokyo, 18 went to European athletes – five of them gold. Why are European athletes so successful?
Athanasios Pragalos: I think the policy of the federations in combination with the European approach in the past years made our continent very strong. We started with A-class tournaments in the 90s and early 2000s and this matured into G ranked events. Nowadays, we have in European annually 23-26 G1 events. This gives our athletes the best possible way to fight at a high level and automatically prepares the athletes for successful participation at our Continental events. In addition to that, our policy always has been to focus on all age divisions. It was Europe that first started with European Junior championships. Later we added Cadets and now we also have Kids European Championships. That means that our athletes have a very big advantage to other athletes outside our region as they have learnt from very young age what it is to fight at the highest levels within Europe.
If you look at the age of some successful Olympic medalists in Tokyo, you can see that they have participated in all these events. A good example is Olympic silver medalist Adriana Cerezo Inglesias! She is totally well known in Europe and was a big surprise for the world. She has won all major events in Europe in the past years and it proves that our policy is an extension of an amazing system that her club and country has in Spain.
TA: The Olympic Games are returning to Europe for 2024, how important is this event for the ETU?
Athanasios Pragalos: We always follow the Olympics with special interest. This year we posted many posts on social media to support the athletes and to give them power to win medals! However, I think the events we organize and the events our member federations organize are as important as the Olympics. Because without these events in Europe, it would be impossible for our athletes to be successful at the Olympics! That having said, we are of course very proud and happy that Paris is the next city in which we will have the 2024 Olympics!!
TA: Some of Europe’s major capitals have become important venues for world Taekwondo events. Why is this? How is the sport viewed in Europe?
Athanasios Pragalos: We love sports in Europe. But moreover, our member federations are very professional and have excellent skills to organize events at the World level. Great Britain, Turkey, Bulgaria and Azerbaijan are just a few examples of countries that exactly know how to manage large, global events.
TA: How is the relationship between the European Taekwondo Union and World Taekwondo?
Athanasios Pragalos: Excellent! My staff has daily contact with the WT office and the relationship between them is on a friendly basis. We visit each other regularly and also have on a weekly basis contact with the Secretary-General of WT, Mr. Rafaty. Dr. Choue is not only President of WT but also a very close friend these things are of course beneficially for the relationship between our organizations.
TA: How is the European Taekwondo Union valued, in terms of good governance issues.
Athanasios Pragalos: We have in the past years passed several regulations to meet the good governance standards of the EU. We report on what we do, we are accountable to our members and we always involve our council and/or members in the policy decision making process. But good governance is more than that alone. We have many good persons working in our organization and it is them who make ETU what ETU has become today: a professional organization, based on a solid foundation of not only good governance but also with the support of an amazing staff and officials making ETU one of the strongest Continental Unions in the world.
TA: If you could make one wish for Taekwondo in Europe, what would it be.
Athanasios Pragalos: I would wish that all athletes, officials and participants in our sport have the opportunity to follow their dreams and ambitions and that Taekwondo gives them guidance during their journey!
TA: What future do you envision for World Taekwondo?
Athanasios Pragalos: I think our sport has developed into an amazing global sport in the past decade. I see a very bright future for Taekwondo! With the current technological developments, I think the best is yet to come! I will do my very best to make sure that Taekwondo will continue to grow, and that our athletes will have only the best opportunities to become the best!
TA: Thank You