Karate will be in the Olympics in 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. Let’s talk about what that means to the martial arts.
Karate in the Olympics – Episode 111
During the show we reference the following websites.
Official Tokyo 2020 Olympic Page on Karate – https://tokyo2020.jp/en/games/sport/olympic/karate/
Official World Karate Federation (WKF) rules – http://www.wkf.net/pdf/competition_rules_version9_2015_en1.pdf
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I’m whistlekick’s founder but I’m better known as your host, Jeremy Lesniak. whistlekick, if you don’t know, makes the absolute best sparring gear, apparel, and accessories for practitioners and fans of traditional martial arts. I’d like to welcome the new listeners and thank everyone that’s come back again.
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Let’s talk about the Olympics, specifically, karate being included for 2020 and the effect the Olympics has had on martial arts.
Of course, karate has been approved as a demonstration sport for 2020 when the Summer Olympics are hosted in Tokyo, Japan. If you’re active on social media, you’ve likely seen some criticism and fear come from the announcement, but what do we really know? Can we even guess at this point what’s going to happen?
The World Karate Federation, the WKF, was the group that the International Olympic committee recognized as the official organization making the bid. We know that sparring (kumite in Japanese) will be included, but that’s really about all we know at this point. If you’re a history buff, you know that karate missed being included three previous times.
Despite strong efforts by full-contact, kyokushin based groups for a second style of rules, full-contact karate, the IOC didn’t relent. It looks like we’re looking at WKF rule sparring. But what are those rules? Are forms included or just sparring? Weapons?
After a lot of digging we managed to turn up a web page that no one seems to be talking about, and it’s part of the official Tokyo 2020 website. We’ve linked to it on the show notes, whistlekickMartialArtsRadio.com
While nothing is set in stone, the information on the Tokyo 2020 page pretty much says it’s going to be WKF rules, which makes sense, because the WKF would want their rules used. What do those rules say, though? Again, we’ve linked the full ruleset over on our website.
The biggest surprise is that the Tokyo 2020 page mentions kata, or forms, by name. There hasn’t been any mention anywhere else of forms, strictly of sparring, but it’s hard to know what that means.
It could mean that the news outlets are just talking about sparring since it’s easier to compare and contrast with Olympic Taekwondo. We’ll have to wait and see.
But let’s go over the rules a bit. It’s a long ruleset and I’m not going to read it to you. That would be a very long and boring episode. So here are the highlights.
In sparring, bouts are 3 minutes for men and 2 for women. 3 points for a kick to the head, face or neck or any technique on an opponent who has been thrown or is falling. 2 Points for kicks to the front, back or sides of the torso. 1 point for any punch or open hand strike, anywhere. Unlike Olympic taekwondo face punches are allowed in WKF rules.
Yes, grabs are allowed so long as the grab is above the waist. Sweeps are legal. The rules talk a lot about technique quality, which is, of course, very subjective. It was that subjectivity that got early Olympic taekwondo in trouble and led to electronic scoring. There’s no mention of electronics in these rules.
No attacks to the arms, legs, groin or joints. No open hand techniques to the face. Matches go the full length of time or until someone has an 8 point lead. If it’s tied at the end of time, the judges vote. There are 5 different weight classes each for men and women.
Kata are scored on a number of factors, including accuracy to the style. In other words, modifications are not permitted. Quality of stances, technique, timing, breathing, focus, technical difficulty and transitional movements are all considered along with strength, speed, balance & rhythm when delivering a score. There’s a time limit of 6 minutes and you’re disqualified if you forget to bow or your belt falls off.
This is a quote from the rules: Kata is not a dance or theatrical performance. It must adhere to the traditional values and principles. It must be realistic in fighting terms and display concentration, power, and potential impact in its techniques. It must demonstrate strength, power, and speed — as well as grace, rhythm, and balance.
The rules have a lot of information about team kata, though the Tokyo 2020 site doesn’t mention anything about individual vs team events though it does quote the WKF stipulation that different katas be performed in each match, including the final. If you’re used to forms being scored, that’s not how this goes. There are rounds, with the judges voting a winner each round – it’s one on one. The WKF maintains an official list of accepted katas and that list is referenced on the Olympic site.
There’s no mention of weapons, nothing that implies teams are going to be included.
We’ll have to wait and see what happens. We have 4 years and I’m sure at least a year before anything concrete is put out.
But what does this mean for karate? Fortunately, we have both Judo and Taekwondo to compare to.
Judo was first included in the Olympics in 1964 for men. Women’s Judo was a demonstration sport in 1988 alongside Taekwondo, and included as an official sport in 1992. Taekwondo, comparatively, was a demonstration sport in both 1988 and 1992, it was left out in 1996 and then included in 2000. Why two years? Because the IOC didn’t want to include it after 1988 and there was some… stuff that happened behind the scenes. Mr. Gillis covers it very well in A Killing Art. (We interviewed Mr. Alex Gillis on episode 106 of this show.)
A short time ago Black Belt Magazine did a feature on whether Judo’s inclusion in the Olympics had been helpful. We’ve linked it on the website, but the general takeaway is that popularity soared and the art – practice – sport, whatever you choose to call it – became dominated by rules, with certain traditional movements being removed. While judo’s inclusion in the Olympics has helped it grow globally, it’s stagnated or even shrunk here in the US.
Black Belt did a similar piece on Taekwondo. Of course, there are different styles of Taekwondo, and not all of them are based on the Olympic rules, which are often referred to as WTF – World Taekwondo Federation rules. Interestingly, WTF events often have forms competition, but there’s no forms competition at the Olympics.
We don’t know what’s going to happen when 2020 hits. We don’t know if karate, overall, will benefit from the increased exposure. We do know that all karate, like all martial arts, is far from cohesive, and this standardization on a ruleset has already upset some. I’m excited to see what happens and I’m hopeful that another martial art in the Olympics will be good for all of us. I am afraid that Karate in 2020 could mean Taekwondo being pushed out, as everything I’ve read says Taekwondo is one of the least certain events for the next Olympics. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see Karate, Taekwondo, Judo and more martial arts rather than, say, badminton. No offense to any Olympic badminton fans out there.
What do you think? Will Olympic karate be a good thing? A bad thing? Do you have interest in going out for the US Olympic karate team? Do you think it will have an impact on enrollment at martial arts schools? Whatever your comments, let us know. You can comment on the show notes at whistlekickMartialArtsRadio.com or on social media – we’re on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest & Instagram – all with the username whistlekick.
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That’s all for today, so, until next time, Train hard, smile and have a great day.