Taekwondo, new technique for US sports diplomacy
BETHESDA, Maryland (Yonhap) -- Balcha! (Kick!)
Hana, dul! (One, two!)
In a gym just northwest of Washington D.C., a dozen Iraqi teenagers shed beads of sweat.
The traditional Korean martial art of taekwondo is playing a role in sports diplomacy between the United States and its former wartime foe.
"I'm so delighted to be here," said Sajiad Mohammed Kaittan, a 15-year-old boy, through a translator. "I am very happy to learn new skills and techniques."
Kaittan is among 13 Iraqi taekwondo athletes -- 11 youths and two coaches -- participating in a 10-day sports visitor program sponsored by the State Department.
Another participant, Naz Mohammed Ahmed, 14, said taekwondo is the second-most popular sport in Iraq after soccer.
"The game is very famous in Iraq," she said with a smile. "A lot of people started loving this game."
For them, it is certainly a golden opportunity to not only get special training from the U.S. national taekwondo team coaches but also meet American peers and experience its culture.
Sports diplomacy builds on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's vision of "smart power," embracing the full range of diplomatic tools to bring people together to foster greater understanding across borders, officials say.
"Nothing is a more universal language, frankly, than sports," said Adam Ereli, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for educational and culture affairs. "People who engage in sports have a common language."
His bureau launched the SportsUnited program in 2003, bringing nearly 1,000 athletes from more than 60 countries to the U.S. to join the sports visitor program.
Since 2005, SportsUnited also has sent more than 220 U.S. athletes, including famous baseball and basketball players, to more than 50 nations.
Diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad were impressed by a 13-year-old Iraqi boy's interview on television.
"He was talking about how taekwondo was a way to overcome sectarian barriers between Shia and Sunni, between Kurds and Arabs," said Ereli, who was once ambassador to Bahrain.
The boy was quoted as saying that on a taekwondo team he thinks only about winning a match and representing his homeland.
"So when our diplomats saw that interview, they said, 'Wait a minute. This is a great message for Iraq and the United States,'" he added.
Ereli said the U.S. remains open to sports diplomacy with North Korea despite a longstanding nuclear stand-off.
However, Pyongyang needs to change its posture first, he said.
"Diplomacy is possible with anybody," he said. "But it takes two to tango. You can't taekwondo yourself. You've got to have somebody on the other side. We believe that through sports a lot of misunderstandings can be overcome."
Meanwhile, Kaittan said his goal is to become a world champion and have a better future.
At the end of an interview, he remembered to say "Gamsahamnida," Korean for "thank you."