There was perhaps no more appropriate setting than the Nippon Budokan arena for Karate to debut on the Olympic Stage for the 2020 Tokyo Games, under World Karate Federation (WKF) rules.
The arena played host to its first tournament in 1970 and whilst since then, it has staged a variety of sporting and entertainment events, it still remains the spiritual home of Karate.
It is here where history was made, and the Olympic officials plus audiences around the world watching from home witnessed some exciting, and highly impressive displays; Katas performed with poise, grace and technical athleticism whilst the kumite warriors stepped on the tatami (mat) and fought to become the first Karate Olympians.
Over the three days from 5th to 7th August, the Nippon Budokan arena echoed the “Kiais!” of competitive karate warriors once more.
Having witnessed such high-quality martial arts action packed with suspense and drama, one can’t help but feel a little melancholy at the decision not to include karate in the Paris Games in 2024.
Its Olympic presence now may appear fleeting but there’s no denying that karate has given the Games some intriguing and memorable moments.
Here at KFK, we followed the action closely to bring you some of the most incredible moments from the one-Games (for now) wonder that is Karate. Follow on for Olympics 2020: Top 5 Karate Highlights from this Year’s Games!
5. Sandra Sanchez: Kata Queen Reigns Supreme
For Sandra Sanchez, August 5th 2021, was a double celebration for not only was it her wedding anniversary, but it was an historic day in WKF karate.
Sanchez started studying karate at the age of 4 alongside her older brother, but her tournament career didn’t start until 2015 when she competed in the European Games in Turkey winning her first gold medal.
Like her husband and coach, Jesus Del Moral, Sanchez is a practitioner of Shito Ryu. Her first win propelled her into a powerful record, winning 36 medals over five years, a record entered into the Guinness World Records for the most medals won in Karate Premier League.
When she put her name forward to join the Olympic team representing Spain, she was met with opposition including from her husband. Critics were opposed to her inclusion in the Tokyo Olympic Games at 39 years of age, having deemed her too old to compete at such a high level. However, she impressed the judges with her poise and athleticism making it all the way to the final up against her old rival Kiyou Shimizu.
The two previously faced off in the same arena competing in what was a rare tie- breaker. Shimizu won that event, however two years later, and just one month shy of her 40th birthday, Sandra Sanchez stepped onto the tatami.
Her performance of the Chatanyara Kushanku Kata – derived from the Okinawan style Shuri-Te and rooted in White Crane Kung Fu – earned a score of 27.86 out of 20. Sandra Sanchez made history as the first karateka to win an Olympic gold medal and therefore sealing her moniker as the “Queen of Katas”.
4. Luigi Busa vs Rafael Aghayev: Old Rivals Reunited
The Kumite has brought both controversial and inspiring moments to this year’s Olympic competition. It has also given us that traditional rivalry prevalent throughout all sporting contests and karate is no exception.
For Italy’s Luigi Busa, karate is very much a family affair. He not only followed his father (who coached the Italian Junior Karate Team), into the art at the age 4, but he’s also married to Laura Pasqua who competes in international kumite championships.
Busa is a two-time gold medal champion, and five-time European champion ranking him no.1 in the WKF 75kg category. His rival, Rafael Aghayev of Azerbaijan, however, won 32 medals since 2004, going on to become a five-time gold medal winner and eleven-time European champion.
The friendly rivalry between Busa and Aghayev started in 2009 at the World Championships in Croatia when they squared off for their first bout.
Over the years the two karatekas have battled each other, most of it friendly, on and off the tatami. They were reunited for karate’s biggest competition in the -75kg category, proving to be a high-suspense match with both fighters clearly familiar with the other’s style and tactics and using that knowledge to their own advantage.
They held each other at bay until less than a minute left, Busa scored a yuko senshu against his rival. The match intensified as the seconds counted down with both warriors fighting hard with Aghayev scrambling to get the hits in whilst Busa kept him at bay.
Busa held off his adversary to the end and roared like a champion after being declared the gold medal winner. It was a tense and frenetic match and although their Olympic Karate journey has now ended, it won’t be long before the two face each other once again.
3. Feryal Abdelaziz vs Iryna Zaretska: A Shock Win
Egypt’s Feryal Abdelaziz caused a bit of an upset in the final of the Women’s +61kg Kumite.
The 22 year-old gold medal winner who first took up karate at the age of 7, debuted on the world stage at the 2018 World Championships in Madrid where she took bronze, taking silver the following year at the African Games.
Before qualifying for the Olympics, Feryal’s wins had mainly consisted of bronze and silver medals. By contrast her teammate Giana Farouk, who was predicted to bring home the gold for Egypt, is a three-time gold medal world champion but was only able to take bronze as Abdelaziz went on to face Iryna Zaretska of Azerbaijan.
Zaretska previously won gold medals at both European and World championships and is ranked no.1 in her class by the WKF. Pundits expected her to make history in her division.
It came as a huge surprise that during the three-minute bout, Iryna was unable to score a point against the less experienced Feryal who fought the champion long and hard.
The young Egyptian beat the world number 1-ranked champion 2-0, and took home the gold, the first Egyptian to do so since the 2004 Athens Games.
2. Tareg Hamedi vs Sajad Ganjzadeh: The Controversial Win
This will be the most talked about kick in the history of sport karate for many years to come. The rules of contact in WKF Kumite are clear in that only light or semi-contact is made and no harm should come to the combatant.
Yet the final Kumite match of the +75kg category and of the Games itself saw perhaps the most controversial win in Olympic competition.
Twenty two year-old Tareg Hamedi from Saudi Arabia is a two-time Asian Games gold medalist taking gold at the 2017 and 2019 games, and though impressive at this point, had only been competing in both team and individual Kumite for a little over three years.
In his Olympic final match, Hamedi dominated his more experienced opponent, Iran’s Sajad Ganjzadeh from the beginning, securing a 4-0 lead with an ippon, then yuko score, and holding it until the final moment when his opponent scored a yuko (1 point).
Aged 29, Ganjzadeh has been competing for eight years and is a five-time gold medal winner at both Asian Games and World championships, a sure fire bet on winning gold for his country. Hamedi and Ganjzadeh fought for two minutes straight until a devastating blow led to the most controversial win.
With less than a minute left on the clock, Hamedi executed devastating Jodan Mawashi Geri (round kick to the head) knocking Ganjzadeh unconscious.
After several minutes of deliberation it was ruled that the kick was a violation of the rules due it being a full-contact hit and causing harm to a karateka. Hamedi was disqualified. When Ganjzadeh came to, it was to the news that he had won the gold medal via hansoku (disqualification).
What we find most memorable here, aside from the kick itself, is the grace and dignity with which both men took the outcome. Hamedi told reporters “I don’t have any objection to the decision of the referees. I think I played well”, whilst Ganjzadeh said, “I’m glad to win this medal, but I’m also sorry for my opponent for what happened.”
1. Ryo Kiyuna: Karate Comes Home to Okinawa
Throughout the three days, karate has produced a variety of ‘firsts’, mainly medal winners in the first Olympic Karate event. The Men’s Kata finals gave us an additional ‘first’ that was truly spectacular.
Just as England tried to bring football home at the European Cup Finals, Ryo Kiyuna brought karate home to its motherland, Okinawa.
Kiyuna, a practitioner of the traditional Okinawan style “Ryuei-ryu”, is a five-time World gold medal champion in both individual and team events, and eight-time gold medalist at the Asian Games.
The last eighteen months have been a challenge for the 31 year-old karateka who represented Japan at the Tokyo Games. In 2019, Kiyuna’s mother died at age 57, and the following year he contracted Covid-19 jeopardizing his Olympic prospects.
Now, Kiyuna dazzled the judges performing the Ohan Dai Kata – a recent addition to the WKF list of approved forms. His performance saw him beat Damián Quintero of Spain, ranked no.1 (and a world champion), whom he beat at the 2017 World Games in Wroclaw, Poland.
Kiyuna’s gold medal win at Tokyo secured him a place in history not only as the first Olympic gold medal winner in Men’s Kata but also the first Okinawan athlete to win an Olympic title
This incredible win was made even more moving as Kiyuna stood proudly on the podium, accepting his gold medal with genuine honour and humility, whilst holding back tears as he held a picture of his late mother dedicating his win in her memory.
Kiyuna’s performance was truly the most unique with a kata and style rooted in Okinawan Karate history – serving as the art’s finest ambassador bringing together the best of both the competitive and traditional aspects of karate.