After more than four decades of campaigning, Karate will finally make its debut as an Olympic sport at this year’s Tokyo Games to be held on 23rd July and closing on 8th August. Delayed initially by the global COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Olympic Games will go ahead thanks to strict safety protocols and the successful vaccine roll out.
Karate will be one of five new activities to make their debut on the world games stage, with 34 countries competing in Kata and weight class Kumite contests.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has partnered with the World Karate Federation to make this happen, however the road to Olympic recognition has been a difficult and bumpy one.
Let’s take a look at how Karate finally arrived at the world Olympic stage, the rules of the contest, and the Olympic warriors entering the global dojo in our historical report, Karate Finally Arrives at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics!
The Road to Tokyo
It all began with Jacques Delcourt (1928-2011), a renowned Karate champion and administrator considered to be the father of modern European Karate. Delcourt was a student of Henry Plée (1923-2014) a student of the founder of the Shotokan system Gichin Funakoshi.
Delcourt was instrumental in the creation of the European Karate Federation (EKF) and served as head of the organization from 1961 to 1997, as well as guiding the World Union of Karate-Do Organizations (WUKO) to international recognition.
This was largely due to Delcourt’s staging of invitational tournaments in Europe bringing nations together in friendly competition and before long, it had caught the attention of the IOC.
Jacques Delcourt Fought for the Inclusion of Karate in the Olympics
In the 1980s Delcourt led the fight for inclusion in the Olympic Games and the IOC were seriously considering its inclusion in the 1992 Barcelona Games. The rules for any activity to be included in the sport must have at least 40 countries competing in its championships, and only have a single governing body.
Hidetaka Nishiyama: Founder of the JKA
Karate had no problem meeting the first requirement as almost 50 countries attended the 1984 World Championships in the Netherlands. It was at this time that Delcourt had his own nemesis, Hidetaka Nishiyama, another student of Funakoshi and founder of the Japanese Karate Association (JKA).
Nishiyama also co-founded the Pan American Karate Union in 1973 and was appointed Executive Director of the International Amateur Karate Federation (IAKF), the organization that was to be the thorn in Delcourt’s side.
Issues between Organizations
The problem arose as both the WUKO and the IAKF claimed to be the sole governing body of world Karate. Regional and national governing bodies including the EKF were aligning themselves with WUKO. Nishiyama and the IAKF however refused to align with WUKO and maintained their claim to be Karate’s principle world governing body.
With two organizations vying for dominance, the IOC suspended WUKO’s recognition and later voted not to include Karate in the Barcelona Games. A devastating blow was struck to the heart of Karate but the fight was far from over.
IOC Recognizes WKF as World Governing Body for Karate
Nishiyama’s IAKF became the International Traditional Karate Federation, and WUKO continued its growth consolidating more than 150 national federations to become the WKF. This led to the IOC recognizing WKF as the sole governing body for the sport of Karate in the world.
Numerous votes were held over the years to get karate through the olympic door but to no avail, until 2013 when Tokyo won its bid to host the 2020 games.
Talks of karate finally being included were dashed when the IOC voted not to do so by overwhelming majority. That all changed two years later when the Tokyo 2020 organizers included karate in a package of five sports to be considered including Baseball, Skateboarding, Sport Climbing and Surfing.
IOC Agrees to Include Karate in the Olympics
The case made to the IOC was that these activities were popular with the world’s youth marking a historic step in bringing the Games to young people.
The IOC agreed and at the 129th session in Rio de Janeiro voted to include karate at the Tokyo games. Ten years after his passing it seems that Delcourt’s dream to have karate featured in the Olympics finally became a reality.
Rules of Engagement
Olympic Karate is governed in accordance with WKF rules and regulations, and made up of two events; kata and Kumite. Fighters taking part in the Kumite will be divided into three categories for men and women.
Men’s weight divisions are up to 67kg, up to 75kg, and 75kg or above, whereas women’s divisions consist of up to 55kg, up to 61kg, and 61kg or above.
Kata scoring will be carried out by five judges sitting around the designated area, and competitors will be assigned a colour; blue or red. With so many different styles of karate being taught, each with their own katas or variations on established forms, only WKF approved styles will be admitted; these are the Shotokan, Goju-Ryu, Shito-Ryu, and Wado-Ryu systems.
After each Kata is performed the judges will raise a blue or red flag indicating which competitor they felt performed the best. The competitor with the most flags of their colour raised wins the round.
Anyone who’s watched the “Karate Kid” movies or “Bloodsport” will instantly recognise the Kumite point system structure. Each strike carries a point depending on the strike used and which target on the body is hit. The scoring systems is as follows:
One point is scored with any closed-fist strike (tsuki) to the head or torso
Two points are scored with a kick to any part of the torso
Competitor scores three points with a kick to the head or neck
The winner of the Kumite match is the one who scores the most points, however should a match result in a tie, then the Senshu rule applies. Under this rule the match continues until a fighter achieves the first instance of scoring, without them also scoring before the referee calls Yame (stop).
In the contest there are a total of eight gold medals up for grabs, six for Kumite and two for kata.
Enter the Arena
There were various qualifying tournaments held all over the word including Buenos Aires, Argentina, and recently Paris, France. Over an exciting action-packed weekend, 11th-13th June 2021, the final selection of karate warriors battled each other to qualify for place on their country’s olympic teams.
Total of 82 Karatekas: 42 Men and 40 Women
A total of 82 karatekas representing 34 countries will compete in the Tokyo games. Of the total fighters, 42 are men and 40 are women, with a total of 61 competing in the Kumite and 21 performing their best kata. They include:
Park Hee-jun, 27, from South Korea was the first from his country to qualify for a place on the Olympic Team, along with 24 year-old veteran medalist Dilara Bozan of Turkey.
Both will perform their kata’s in Tokyo. Among the warriors competing in the Kumite include Firdovsi Farzaliyev of Azerbaijan, Radwa Sayed from Egypt, Peru’s Alexandra Grande, and fighting for USA Brian Irr.
All but four places have now been filled with the remaining spots to be allocated through the Tripartite Commission invitational to those countries with less than eight athletes competing in individual sports.
The contest will take place between 5th and 7th August at the famous Nippon Budokan Arena in Chiyoda, Tokyo, built in 1964, a venue that has played host to spectacular sporting and martial arts events.
There is some pressure on how Olympic Karate plays out as, not without some irony, the organizers of the Paris 2024 games have excluded Karate in their lineup. So the pressure is on for the sport to dazzle not only the crowds, and lovers of the art but also the IOC to push for its inclusion at Paris.
Time to say…KIAI!
For now however, the walls of the Nippon Budokan which once echoed with the mighty slams of All Japan Pro Wrestling and the mighty blows of the late great Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki, will now hear the resounding “KIAI!” of Karate warriors fighting for their place as Olympians, and the honour of standing proud on the medal podium.