LONDON (AP) — Taekwondo may be known mostly for its flashy kicks and acrobatic jumping, but it was the sport's disputed scoring system that gained the spotlight at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
To avoid getting thrown out of the Olympics, the sport's governing body completely overhauled its antiquated system of scoring punches and kicks.
At this weekend's British Open, an international taekwondo competition in Manchester, officials will be fine-tuning the new electronic scoring and video replay systems. The event is one of the key warm-up events ahead of the 2012 London Olympics, where the new technology will be used at the games for the first time.
In addition to revamping how attacks are scored, taekwondo officials have also changed the rules to make fights more entertaining for fans: Players now score more points for fancy kicks to the head.
"That encourages fighters to do the high kicks and spinning kicks that make spectators say 'wow,'" said Tony Grisman, the defending British Open champion in the men's 68-kilogram division. "It's definitely changed my strategy because if you're thinking tactically of how to get the most points, you have to kick high."
That's something Grisman hopes to try on his opponents at the Manchester tournament, which has attracted more then 400 top fighters from about 50 countries, including Olympic medalists and world champions.
One of the British Open's biggest tests will be how well the new scoring system works.
"We're trying to mimic the Olympic Games as closely as we can," said Ian Leafe, who heads the group that organized the British Open. "The human eye is only so quick, so we needed a system that was more objective."
In Beijing, several countries complained about scoring discrepancies. A British protest even led officials to overturn the original results of a women's heavyweight bout. In 2008, scoring was done manually by four corner judges and points were only awarded if three of the four judges registered a blow simultaneously.
Critics said that left too much room for error, and taekwondo officials worried the Korean martial art might be replaced in the Olympics by karate or Chinese wu-shu.
The World Taekwondo Federation, the sport's governing body, decided to go electronic.
Taekwondo fighters now wear an electronic body protector that registers kicks and punches only if the athlete strikes his or her opponent with sufficient force. Kicks to the head are still scored manually by corner judges, but coaches now have the right to at least one video replay per match, much like the Hawkeye system in tennis.
Leafe said the new system should eliminate the potential for scoring disputes.
"It's now much more transparent and calls can be challenged instantly in the middle of a fight," he said.
In the case of a challenge, the fight immediately stops and the referee confers with the judges or consults a video replay.
Since its origins as Korea's oldest martial art — which was once only taught to elite warriors — taekwondo has transformed itself into the world's most popular martial art. According to the World Taekwondo Federation, there are more than 70 million practitioners in 191 countries.
Korean soldiers still study the martial art to develop their combat skills; taekwondo translates as "the art of the foot and fist."
But for Olympic purposes, taekwondo fighters focus on their feet. That's because punches are only allowed to the body and are worth only one point — and only if the punch is strong enough to push the opponent off balance.
However, kicks can score up to four points if they're aimed at the head and if they involve a turning or spinning technique.
Taekwondo officials also decreased the size of the competition area and introduced an inactivity penalty for any fighter who goes without trying to kick or punch for longer than 10 seconds. Such changes have taken the sport further from its martial arts origins, but that may be precisely what it needs to attract more fans.
"Taekwondo as an Olympic sport is like a game," said Grisman, the defending champion. "It's not about who can do the best kick. It's about who's the most clever and can adapt to different situations and score the most points. That makes it more exciting to watch than a traditional martial art."