Sports Editor Rachel Higgins previews the introduction of karate to the Olympic program, the martial art with a fitting origin story for the Tokyo games.
In alignment with our sporting series on events added into the Olympic games, karate is another notable discipline making its debut this year in Tokyo. It is entirely fitting that karate has been introduced at this time given the origin story of the sport believed to originate in Japan during the 1400s. The sport became popular on a global scale following the Second World War due to a considerable surge in participation across America from interactions between servicemen and Japanese experts.
The journey for karate in making to the games goes as far back as 1970. The International Olympic Committee introduced karate to its program formally in August 2016. The qualifying process for the sport began in 2018 and was officially chosen for the 2020 Olympics, marking a great success for the martial art form.
In a statement made by Yoshihide Suga, the Prime Minister of Japan, it becomes clear the host country is excited and justifiably proud to allow karate to make its Olympic debut on historical grounds. Suga has said this is ‘a unique opportunity to spread the value and traditions of Japanese martial arts to the world, through the showcase of karate as a universal sport.’
Athletes have the privilege of competing in the Nippon Budokan, originally built for judo during the 1964 Olympics held in Tokyo that year. This was the very venue where the sport held its first karate World Championship in 1970.
There are two karate events that have been added to the Tokyo Olympic program. The first is kata, seen as more of an art form in martial arts where athletes demonstrate a series of moves against a virtual opponent.
As stated by the World Karate Federation WKF, there are 102 approved kata for the athletes to choose and perform. Traditionally, kata judges will use flags to score the performance, however for the games this year it will be based on a points system taking into account technical ability, timing and even breathing. This new scoring system also includes a ranking round. Each kata competitor has their top and bottom two scores discarded and three remaining scores added to reach this final ranking. If there happens to be a draw, the competitors perform another kata of their choice.
The second and notably one of the most intense combat events one can look forward to, is kumite. This is the sparring form of the martial art as the two competitors go head to head in a fight scenario. Kumite fighters are known as a pair of karateka and compete in three-minute rounds on an eight by eight-meter mat. If one karateka is able to lead the fight by eights points or more than their competitor, it is an instant win. If not, it is the fighter with the most points at the end of the three minutes. For this event in the Olympics, there are three weight classes for men and women respectively.
Unlike taekwondo, kumite fighters are not required to wear a headguard or the bulky outer body protectors, making for a much more interesting watch as the movement is less restricted, and strikes are included for points too. Not to mention, competitors are actually allowed to punch to the face. Points are also awarded for takedowns but have to be followed up with an attack to count. In the event of a draw, the karateka who scored the first point in the match wins.
The events are scheduled to begin from Thursday 5th August and continue until the 7th. There are 60 athletes competing in kumite and 20 in the kata events. Unfortunately, during the qualifying tournaments and test matches, none of the Great Britain karate team managed to qualify for Olympic competitive ranking. However, it must be said the competition was tougher than ever this year with athletes fighting teeth and nail to earn their place in Tokyo.
Additionally, it must also be said that the Olympic committee for the 2024 games in Paris have decided not to continue with karate being in the line for events. This is a considerable shame for the many WKF officials and karate fans alike who have worked hard at getting the sport Olympic recognition. Therefore, the athletes who have made it to the games this year will need to make it count and it will certainly be the sport to watch come the first week of August.
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