It was great. I was drinking coffee in the stands and enjoying the spectacle of random countries beating the crap out of each other in a sport I had never seen or cared about before. Mali gave Uzbekistan a real pounding. Up next on the board: CAM vs MEX, Women’s 68+ kg. Mexico verses who? Cameroon? Cambodia? Either way, I thought, this is something you don’t see every day.
It turned out that the fighter was Cambodian. She was a tall, lanky 20-year-old from Phnom Pehn, who must tower over everyone else in the country. Her name was Davin Sorn, and she had failed to qualify for the games but got through on a wild card from the World Taekwondo Federation, which regulates the sport. Her opponent was Maria Espinoza, a fighter from Sinoloa who had won Gold in Beijing in 2008. Espinoza was the clear favourite, and the favourite of the crowd: “Mex-i-co! Mex-i-co!” they chanted.
Sorn looked nervous but steady before the fight. As the announcer called her name, she took a drink of water, and exchanged a few final words with her coach. She did have one thing going for her. At officially 5’10” (though she appeared to be much taller), she towered over the 5’8” Espinoza. Taekwando is mostly a sport of kicking, and fighters with longer legs have a considerable advantage over their opponents. In the opening round, Espinoza tried to lure the less-experienced fighter into an attack that would leave her open for a counter-strike. But Sorn would not be drawn. She kept her distance and used her long foreleg to push Espinoza around the mat. When Sorn finally did strike, she scored with a kick to the chest. Espinoza counter-struck with a punch. At the end of the first round the score was tied.
In the second round, Sorn came out kicking. In the first seconds she delivered a jab with her left leg, then pivoted and brought a high kick down on the head of her opponent. Head shots are three points in Taekwando, and the blow would have given Sorn a definitive lead over the Mexican. When no score was given, her coach flashed his blue card, triggering a review of the kick by the replay judges.
Watching the slow motion, it appeared to my untrained eye that Sorn’s right foot connected solidly with the back of Espinoza’s head. The judges saw things differently, and the fight went on with a 1-1 score. Moments later, one of Espinoza’s powerful punches found its target, and she took the lead by a single point. “Mex-i-co! Mex-i-co!” the crowd chanted.
In the end, Sorn narrowly lost 3-2 in the final seconds of the match. Espinoza went on to fight hard for a bronze and won it, despite what looked like a painful injury.
Around 10,500 athletes competed for just 300 or so gold medals in this summer’s Olympics. The television tells the story of the winners, who overcome incredible odds and personal struggles to bring home glory. But all those losers have stories too. Sorn was born in 1992, the year after the end of a horrific 13-year civil war in Cambodia. Since then, the impoverished South Asian nation has participated in four Olympics without once making it past the opening round. She was their best hope here in London. She came to the UK early to train with a British coach who spent weeks working with her to develop her tactics and technique.
In the end, she couldn’t get it done, but watching her fight was better than watching the gold medal bout on TV later that evening. Sorn must have known she wasn’t a real contender—she hadn’t even qualified, and her opening fight was against an Olympic champion. The crowd was against her, as were the odds. Yet she fought with intelligence and determination, and very nearly won. What could be more Olympic.