On March 2 2022, two Imgur posts claimed Russia’s president Vladimir Putin was “stripped of his black belt”; one of the two posts was an Instagram screenshot, the other depicting a February 28 2022 post on Reddit’s r/worldnews:
Google Trends data indicated searches related to Putin’s black belt began spiking on February 28 2022. Searches with “Breakout” popularity included “Putin black belt,” “Putin stripped of black belt,” “Putin black belt revoked,” “Putin loses black belt,” “Putin lost black belt,” and “honorary black belt.”
Who Purportedly Rescinded Vladimir Putin’s Black Belt?
In the screenshot above, a post from the official Instagram account of CBS News referenced “World Taekwondo.” That entity was described as “the international governing body of the sport,” and the caption read:
World Taekwondo, the international governing body of the sport, said that Russia’s attack on Ukraine goes against the group’s vision of “Peace is more precious than triumph,” as well as the values of respect and tolerance. Putin was also suspended as the honorary president and ambassador of the International Judo Federation.
What is a ‘Black Belt’?
A “black belt” is considered a broad signifier of expertise in some martial arts. JudoInfo.com says that the practice is relatively modern:
In the days before Kano created Judo, there was no kyu/dan ranking system in the martial arts. A more traditional method of recognizing achievement was the presentation of certificates or scrolls, often with the secrets of the school inscribed. Kano started the modern rank system when he awarded shodan to two of his senior students (Shiro Saigo and Tsunejiro Tomita) in 1883. Even then, there was no external differentiation between yudansha (black belt ranks) and mudansha (those who hadn’t yet attained black belt ranking).
Posts about Putin’s black belt referenced taekwondo specifically, and a photograph caption on the general “black belt” page added:
Some martial art schools use embroidered bars to denote different levels of black belt rank, as shown on these taekwondo 1st, 2nd, and 3rd dan black belts.
A Taekwondo Wiki entry provided a breakdown for the meaning of “dan” in the sport:
The term Dan (단) is commonly used in Korean martial arts to denote a black belt. Literally, however, the word more closely translates as “level” or “stage”. For example, some jumping kicks are called “ee dan” kicks, which translates as “level two”, where ee is the number two in the sino-Korean numbering system. In English, the different levels of black belt are called 1st dan, 2nd dan, 3rd dan, etc. (Or in Korean: il dan, ee dan, sam dan, etc.)
Unlike some martial arts, in some styles of Taekwondo achieving one’s first black belt (1st dan) is not intended to connote that one is now an “expert” in taekwondo. In these styles of taekwondo (for example, the Kukkiwon/WT-style), the 1st dan black-belt is intended instead to denote that one is now a trained student, but still a student nonetheless.
What is World Taekwondo?
World Taekwondo is described as one of the main international governing bodies for the sport. Its “about” page says:
World Taekwondo (WT) is the International Federation (IF) governing the sport of Taekwondo and is a member of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) and International Paralympic Committee (IPC). WT leads the most inclusive and accessible combat sport, which combines the values of an ancient Asian heritage with the values of a global elite sport.
The organization apparently rebranded from World Taekwondo Federation to World Taekwondo in 2017 to avoid an amusing but potentially misleading acronym.
Did Vladimir Putin Earn a ‘Black Belt’?
Viral news about World Taekwondo’s purported statement dominated search results for information about Vladimir Putin’s martial arts skills.
However, limiting results to anything published prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine returned some older news items about Putin and combat sports. In November 2013, The Independent published “Vladimir Putin is awarded grandmaster rank in taekwondo and given black belt – despite not practising the sport,” reporting:
Russian president Vladimir Putin has been presented with a black belt and made a grandmaster of taekwondo during an official visit to South Korea, state media said.
Despite not actually practicing taekwondo himself, Mr Putin has achieved the elusive ninth Dan – meaning he now ranks higher than famous US martial artist Chuck Norris, who is stuck on the eighth.
[In November 2013] the head of the World Taekwondo Federation, Choue Chung-won, presented the Russian leader with the belt and a diploma bestowing the honorary status, according to reports from the official RIA Novosti news agency.
In July 2017, the Washington Post published “Is Vladimir Putin a judo fraud?” — a piece questioning whether Putin’s alleged achievements in martial arts were fabricated:
Vladimir Putin’s martial arts skills are the stuff of legend. Thanks to a steady stream of fawning coverage from Russian state media — often repeated uncritically in American news outlets — Putin is widely reputed to be some sort of high-level expert in judo, his abilities so impressive and so well-known that they have become a metaphor for his governing style.
Putin does possess a black belt, after all, and the 64-year-old Russian president has received multiple martial arts honors from organizations that give out those sorts of things. A quick Google search turns up a huge trove of photos and news footage of him in a white robe flipping opponents on sparring mats with apparent ease. He has co-authored books about judo, and he even starred in an instructional video, aptly titled “Let’s Learn Judo with Vladimir Putin.”
According to [Lawfare editor Benjamin] Wittes, a 47-year-old who holds black belts in taekwondo and aikido, many of Putin’s judo videos — and there are lots of them — are bunk. They typically start with some shots of Putin and his sparring partners warming up, then transition into Putin throwing or tackling an opponent. Wittes says Putin’s partners drop to the floor all too easily.
“At least in the videos I have seen, there are no committed attacks on Putin, and I see no evidence that his opponents are ever trying to get the better of him,” Wittes wrote on Lawfare. “The videos are demonstrations in which he shows off his masculine prowess with them taking what the Japanese call ukemi (defensive falls) for him.”
In a Facebook post titled “Why Won’t Vladimir Putin Fight Me?,” Wittes put it more bluntly: “Putin is fraud martial artist. He only fights people who are in his power, and they are all taking falls for him.”
In short, Putin’s martial arts prowess was already suspect long before the viral story involving World Taekwondo.
Was Putin Stripped of His Black Belt?
According to World Taekwondo, yes.
In a February 28 2022 press release, World Taekwondo stated:
World Taekwondo strongly condemns the brutal attacks on innocent lives in Ukraine, which go against the World Taekwondo vision of “Peace is More Precious than Triumph” and the World Taekwondo values of respect and tolerance.
In this regard, World Taekwondo has decided to withdraw the honorary 9th dan black belt conferred to Mr. Vladimir Putin in November 2013.
In solidarity with the International Olympic Committee, no Russian or Belarusian national flags or anthems will be displayed or played at World Taekwondo events. World Taekwondo and the European Taekwondo Union will not organise or recognise Taekwondo events in Russia and Belarus.
World Taekwondo’s thoughts are with the people of Ukraine and we hope for a peaceful and immediate end to this war.
NPR’s noted that Putin’s black belt was “honorary” in the headline of an article about World Taekwondo’s statement.
We would also like to note that Putin is not the only person in a position of influence or power who has been awarded this title. In November 2021, former United States President Donald Trump also received an honorary 9th dan black belt:
Donald Trump is now a 9th Dan Taekwondo black belt.
That ranks him above 8th Dan Chuck Norris — and a lot of other Taekwondo masters — which may explain why the combat sports community is up in arms. Blame World Taekwondo Headquarters (Kukkiwon) President Lee Dong-sup, who insists there are no political motives behind the honorary certificate.
“It is my honor to receive the Honorary Dan Certificate and I think Taekwondo is magnificent martial art for self defense,” the former U.S. President said after donning his Dobok. “I wish to see Kukkiwon Taekwondo Team’s demonstration.”
Several popular social media posts asserted that Vladimir Putin was stripped of his black belt after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February 28 2022. News reports from 2013 indicated that Putin’s black belt in Taekwondo was honorary, not earned through practice of the sport (though he reportedly practiced Judo). In a February 28 2022 statement, governing body World Taekwondo affirmed it “decided to withdraw the honorary 9th dan black belt conferred to Mr. Vladimir Putin in November 2013.” Since Putin did not earn the rank through prowess or practice, we’ve rated the claim Decontextualized.