Olympic Karate: A positive or negative for the sport?

Karate has been introduced as an Olympic sport for 2020 - Imogen debates the implications for this on the sport.

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Image courtesy of Gustavo Rezende

After the podium successes achieved by England’s Taekwondo team in the 2016 Olympics – coupled with the staggering viewing figures (some suggested 400 million via television alone) – perhaps all the worries surrounding the introduction of another martial art to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics can be forgotten. There has been a lot of scepticism regarding the decision to make Karate one of the demonstration sports in the Tokyo Olympics, not only by non-karateka but by much of the Karate and martial arts community. Many people were not sure if Karate would bring anything new to the games, considering there are already 2 other contact/striking sports: Boxing and Taekwondo. Could this exposure lead a lesser known sport to reach the same level of success as Boxing, or simply lead us to forget the traditional roots of Karate?

In its most traditional form, Karate was considered a way of life. It taught its students self-improvement, self-defence and holistic development through the practising of difficult and occasionally dangerous techniques. These deeply ingrained features meant that Karate was not considered a sport in its early stages. Rather than teaching competition and a “how to win” mentality, it taught its followers how to improve themselves and become better more developed people. It was only later when instructors started creating clubs in an attempt to make it accessible, that a competitive element was introduced.

Although Sport Karate bases much of its content and form on early Karate practise, many argue that it has started to distance itself from its heritage in a bid to make it easier to follow and more exciting to watch. The governing body has gone as far as changing rules purely for the Olympics, reducing the level of face contact and decreasing the amount of techniques available to use. All of these new features distance Sport Karate from its original purpose and practise. This has been observed in many other sports as they entered the Olympics. For example, in ‘non-Olympic’ boxing, the aim is a knockout, however Olympic rules are much stricter and do not encourage heavy contact. This makes the sport less brutal and easier to watch for a wider audience. This can also be observed in sports such as rugby.

In contrast, many people are in support of the Olympic bid, believing that it will inspire juniors and first timers to join their local Karate clubs and start training. A higher level of participation will increase the number of students, making it more competitive and improving the standard of the elite athletes, which in turn will improve Team GB’s performance in the Olympics and other major tournaments. Continued research has granted us a greater medical understanding of the effects of repeated heavy contact to the head, and as a result people are more aware and less inclined to participate in sports that pose such risks. The public have seen the affects in former athletes such as Muhammed Ali, and in younger martial artists whose lives have changed dramatically due to head trauma. It is not hard to see why rules have been changed, and perhaps that is not such a bad thing.

Whatever your view on the issue, SCAN wishes all athletes up for Olympic selection the best of luck!