Karate in the Olympics — Good or Bad?

Earlier today, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games Organizing Committee recommended including karate in the Olympics. The proposal now goes to the International Olympic Committee for final approval. The topic of including karate in Olympic Games has come up in the past. But how will inclusion in the Olympics affect the martial arts of karate?

Throughout the 1980s and early 90s, various organizations such as the World Union of Karate-do Organizations (WUKO) and the International Amateur Karate Federation (IAKF) worked hard toward Olympic recognition and inclusion. Unfortunately, a schism between the two organizations stood in the way, and the topic of karate in the Olympics was tabled.

So here we are again, in the summer of 2015, a short distance away from the Olympic Committee’s decision on the inclusion of karate in the Olympics. If karate is accepted to the Olympics, it will debut in the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

As you know, there are many styles and flavors or karate. The group that the International Olympic Committee has recognized in the bid for the Olympics is the World Karate FederationWKF. The WKF was formed in 1990 (as a successor to WUKO), and includes over 10 million sports karate practitioners in over 130 countries!!! WKF recognizes practitioners in the main karate styles of Goju-Ryu, Shito-Ryu, Wado-Ryu, and Shotokan.

Although inclusion of a martial art in the Olympics can be a joyful moment, it is not without controversy. Looking at other martial arts that have been includes in the Olympics, such as Judo (included since 1964) and Taekwondo (included since 2000), there have been both remarked benefits as well as significant downsides to inclusion. Once included in the Olympics, how will the martial arts of karate fare?


The Benefits of Karate being an Olympic Sport

Olympic inclusion brings additional interests and new practitioners to the sport. It also brings pride and recognition to general practitioners of the sport, whether or not they have Olympic aspirations.

Furthermore, in many countries, inclusion in the Olympics means that government money and subsidies become available to karate clubs and dojos. Of course, apparel companies such as Nike, Adidas and others love to sponsor Olympic athletes, and that is another big source of funding.

Downsides to Olympic Inclusion

On the other hand, inclusion in the Olympics means that the sport needs to be standardized. Rules must (and have) been drawn to score kumite and kata events. By its nature, standardization reduces variety in the art.

Let’s look at an example: WKF kumite rules focus on the safely of sparring. They are based on a point system and are of the “no contact” school.

World Karate Federation Kumite

Specifically, WKF kumite rules prohibit the following:

  • Any excessive contact
  • Open hand attacks to the face (only punches are allowed)
  • Attacks to the arms, legs, groin, joints or instep

You may be looking at the above and saying: “But hold on, aren’t these the very same techniques that are extremely useful in self defense?”

You would be absolutely correct.

A Short Discussion about Sparring Rules

By the way, while WKF’s kumite rules are of the “no-contact” variant, other karate organizations have different kumite rules. For example, Kyokushin Karate mostly uses ungloved kumite, and its rules allow full contact, except to the groin and face. Shinkarate kumite also allows contact, albeit with gloved hands. Some Okinanwan styles, such as Shorin-Ryu on the other hand, engage in Bogu Kumite, which utilizes heavy protective padding. Bogu Kumite literally means “armored sparring.  Here is an interesting photo, circa 1925, of Kenwa Mabuni (the founder of Shito-Ryu karate) and Ryzaemon Matsuwara engaging in bogu kumite:


Of course, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and even ValeTudo Boxing have rules (obvious ones are no biting, no attacks to the groin, no finger pokes to the eyes).

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) | San Diego

The point is that, to ensure some safety to the practitioners, every combative sport must have rules!

Combative Sports and Karate

There are many variants of karate. Some variants are more focused on the combative sports aspect of the martial art, training with a focus of preparing the karateka to compete and win in kata or kumite competitions.

Other karate styles may focus on self defense. Those styles may hone power generation techniques, to develop the skills required to survive in a self defense situation. They may also use kata to condition the body, and as an encyclopedia for learning fighting strategy and tactics, all through the practice of Bunkai (applications).

Yet other karate styles may focus on the development of the warrior spirit – Budo. Those styles may focus on cultivating values such as respect, humility, focus and perseverance, all though experiential learning.

Many karate schools combine several of the above aspects.

Karate in the Olympics – What do you think?

While inclusion in the Olympics will bring exposure, interest and funding to karate, there are also downsides to focusing on “teaching to the test.”

What do you think?

Would it be good or bad if karate is included in the Olympics?

How will the martial art be affected?

Looking forward to hearing your comments below!

Brian is a life-long martial artist, athlete, and serial entrepreneur. He teaches martial arts and self defense to adult and teen students in San Diego, at the Full Potential Martial Arts dojo in Carmel Valley.

7 comments on “Karate in the Olympics — Good or Bad?
  1. Jerry R. says:

    Having karate in the Olympics is a tragic mistake. Look what happened to Judo.

  2. John S. says:

    With Olympic funding, more dojos will be open, and more people will be attracted to karate.

  3. Charles James says:

    Karate in the Olympics

    What do you think?

    Comment: Unlike Judo, karate due to its current image in modern society will never gain the support to become a Olympic sport. It does not have the respect and does not hold high esteem in the eyes of the public and the public are necessary to make it happen for if they won’t go see it, it won’t get included. I am speaking of karate, not all the sport oriented renditions used to dramatize it such as MMA, etc. Karate is only a term used to lump a lot of other commercialized endeavors due to the ignorance of the public and the misconceptions it perceives due to karate’s lack of solidarity in the martial arts community.

    Would it be good or bad if karate is included in the Olympics?

    Comment: Neither, as its current status and perception is barely discerned among all the iterations born of martial arts for sport and commercialism. Now, that in and of itself is not bad, i.e., sport and commercial training and application but ignoring the distinctions between the various venues that make up the martial arts world is a problem. As long as participants and viewers distinguish these various venues of practice, training and most important applications then it is neither good or bad but when that distinction is lost or muddied for drama, promotions and commercialism then it loses on all counts.

    How will the martial art be affected?

    Comment: It won’t be affected either way because the current standing of modern western martial arts practice and training are already affected by all the strange and misunderstandings of a more traditional form of training and practice yet in the very essence of modern martial disciplines every facet and intent of practice if valid and acceptable with one very important caveat, intent and distinction as it relates to why one takes up the discipline and even more important how one applies that knowledge, ability and understanding, i.e., sport or self-defense for example – the two are good things but the two do not involve the same intent and therefore practice and training differ greatly while applications are apples vs. oranges.

  4. Brian Sensei says:


    Thank you for your comments.

    With respect to inclusion in the Olympics — karate is very close:

    On Monday, September 28, 2015, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games Organizing Committee picked Karate to be included in the 2020 games. The decision now goes to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which is expected to approve it.

    As recommended by the 2020 Olympics committee, there will be both individual kata and kumite events.

    While it is likely that karate will be an additional sport in the 2020 Olympics, I am not sure if it will be permanently included in subsequent Olympic Games.

  5. Daniel Mark says:

    Having karate in the Olympics is a tragic mistake

  6. Ken Morrow says:

    To me, competitive karate is akin to competitive fishing. Like wasabi and chocolate chip cookies – both are good – some things shouldn’t be combined.

    Personally, I do not believe that popularity is a productive goal to be pursued. For those trying to turn karate into $$$, popularity drives their thinking. For the self-defense practitioner, no amount of money is worth trading opacity and the element of surprise of one’s craft. We carefully guard our tactics and strategies, and know that we expose them at great peril. We tend to only do so for the purpose of testing and refining our art with proven and trustworthy practitioners from other combative disciplines.

    For me, karate-do is a pathway of personal mentoring that is far too important and precious to commercialize. FYI, I spent 3 pretty successful years in kyu-grade point fighting competition (USKA) and 5 years sparring full-contact competitive (pro and amateur) kick-boxers for training. So I understand sport “karate.” I have a black belt in TKD. So I understand that sport, too.

    When you turn combative arts into a competitive sport, you must strip out their core (and power) to make them safe enough. Then you must “play to the crowd” to make them interesting enough. Let me give you an example…

    I was taught that the difference between a Sho Dan and Ni Dan was the Ni Dan’s ability to execute effective attacks and defenses in such a way that they were not apparent to the untrained observer, while the Sho Dan has turned technical proficiency into instinctive response (mushin no shin). I have plenty of experience with both, and I can tell you honestly that there is a HUGE difference between the two! In a sporting context, nobody wants to see some guy “take a dive” whom they believe never got hit (because they couldn’t see it). In Dan rank kumite, highly skilled judges miss hidden and subtle techniques ALL THE TIME, only to see one karateka suddenly stagger backwards and fall to his knees – unable to continue. More recently, the temporarily disabled karateka is actually allowed time to recoup during a time out and the bouts are continued! (TOTAL violation of the common sense of combatives training)

    You cannot turn that into an effective and popular contact sport. It’s like making “ninja” and “spy” movies. If you make a movie featuring the most skilled of ninjas or spies, it would look like you were filming a typical day at the office or a random view of some street scene from a security camera. Not very compelling for entertainment value!

    Here is the essence of REAL karate-do:

    Two karateka meet in a dark alley. There is a bag of cash between them and they both spy it and each other at the same time. They eye each other – then the bag of cash – then each other again. They look around to see if there are witnesses and then look at each other once again. Then they both walk away. Turn THAT into a spectator sport!

  7. Satish Kutty says:

    There will be a surge of dubious dojos that will teach Sports Karate. Traditional Karate Masters will be lured into the possibility of making quick bucks to cash on the opportunity. It will be a test of character for Practitioners of Traditional Karate.

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