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The American Taekwondo Association (ATA), founded in 1969 by Haeng Ung Lee, is headquartered in Little Rock (Pulaski County). The ATA has approximately 350,000 members, making it the largest taekwondo organization in the United States and one of the largest in the world. The organization maintains that its instructors and students live by its founder’s philosophy: “Today not possible, tomorrow possible.”
After teaching taekwondo for several years at the U.S. Air Force base at Osan in his native South Korea, Haeng Ung Lee immigrated to the United States in 1962 at the invitation of Richard Reed, an American military officer and one of Lee’s top students. Frustrated by the inconsistent quality of taekwondo instruction in the United States, Lee founded the ATA in 1969 in Omaha, Nebraska. He moved the ATA’s headquarters to Little Rock in 1977, claiming that the hills of central Arkansas reminded him of his Korean homeland. During his lengthy leadership of the ATA, Lee published a series of instructor’s manuals and books for taekwondo teachers and students, most notably his Way of Traditional Taekwondo series. In doing so, Lee intended to promote his particular style of taekwondo, known as “Songahm,” which emphasized the discipline’s Korean roots through a focus on kicking. Upon Lee’s death in 2000, the founder’s brother Soon Ho Lee assumed leadership of the ATA.
The ATA and its international affiliates, the Songahm Taekwondo Federation (STF) and the World Traditional Taekwondo Union (WTTU), supervise approximately 1,500 schools across five continents and offer programs for students of all ages, from its “Tiny Tigers” course for preschoolers to its several advanced courses for adults. The ATA maintains a complex belt ranking system, with white belts at the bottom and a ninth-degree black belt at the top. Each rank requires mastery of forms, a series of striking and blocking maneuvers that becomes more complex with each successive belt. Traditionally, there is only one “grand master” (ninth-degree black belt) at any given time, and the holder of this title is considered the leader of the ATA. Haeng Ung Lee was the first to hold this rank, and his brother Soon Ho succeeded him in 2000. Along with the grand master, the ATA is governed by the Master’s Council, whose members are eighth-degree black belts.
The ATA has had a significant economic impact on Little Rock and central Arkansas. The organization holds its annual World Championships in Arkansas’s state capital, attracting thousands of competitors and spectators. According to the ATA, the annual event generates approximately $3.5 million in revenue for local businesses each year. The ATA is also actively involved in numerous charities, including the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Arkansas Special Olympics, Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, and Arkansas Children’s Hospital.
In 2010, Grand Master Soon Ho Lee announced his retirement, becoming the ATA’s first grand master emeritus. On June 25, 2011, during the Songahm World Championships at the Verizon Arena in North Little Rock (Pulaski County), In Ho Lee, the younger brother of Haeng Ung and Soon Ho, was confirmed as the new grand master of the ATA. In 2015, the organization announced plans to develop a new, $13 million complex in Little Rock to serve as the headquarters, complete with a museum and video production studio.
For additional information:
American Taekwondo Association. http://www.ataonline.com (accessed on June 22, 2015).
Cook, Doug. Taekwondo: Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Warrior. Wolfeboro, NH: YMAA Publication Center, 2001.
Gillis, Alex. A Killing Art: The Untold Story of Tae Kwon Do. Toronto: ECW Press, 2008.
Lee, Haeng Ung. The Way of Traditional Taekwondo. 11 vols. Little Rock: American Taekwondo Association, 1993–1997.
Park, Yeon Hee, Yeon Hwan Park, and Jon Gerrard. Tae Kwon Do: The Ultimate Reference Guide to the World’s Most Popular Martial Art. New York: Facts on File, 1989.
Williams, Helaine R. “In Ho Lee.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 14, 2015, pp. 1D, 5D.
Aaron D. Horton
Alabama State University
Last Updated 6/24/2015
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