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 Federation – WKF. 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.
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).
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!