On August 4, 2021, martial arts history happens when karate is introduced at the Tokyo Olympics. Among the 33 overall different sports this year, karate is part of a special group of martial-based Olympic sports. This includes archery, boxing, fencing, judo, modern pentathlon, shooting, taekwondo, and wrestling (some also include the track and field event of javelin, and the winter sport of biathlon.)
Despite their global impact, most Olympic games are of Western origin. The outstanding Non-Western games are the martial arts: judo, taekwondo, and now karate. Previously, every host country had the opportunity to introduce a new event and the Olympics haven't been held in Asia that often. Tokyo 2021 marks only the fourth time the games have been held in Asia. That's only four out of thirty-two Olympiads.
The first time Japan hosted the games in 1964, they included judo. However nowadays, just because a country hosts the games, it doesn't mean they can insert a new event. Every new event candidate must go through a rigorous review process and must work to stay included. The inclusion of karate is the result of decades of hard work on behalf of the global karate community.
When a martial art becomes a sport that reaches the level of the Olympics, it has a profound impact. Let's take a quick look at the other martial that have a transitioned to Olympic events.
The Journey of Judo
"While judo's founder Jigoro Kano actively pursued judo being accepted as an Olympic event, he had strong reservations about judo becoming simply another sport and losing the ideals that his Kodokan judo was founded upon," explains YMAA author Steve Scott. Scott has served as a coach at U.S. Olympic Training Centers and has authored three books for YMAA, The Judo Advantage, The Juji Gatame Encyclopedia, and The Sambo Encyclopedia. In 2018, he awarded Olympic Bronze-medalist judoka Ronda Rousey her 6th degree black belt, and his lifetime involvement in judo gives him a distinctive perspective on Olympic martial arts.
"Professor Kano wanted judo to become an international activity and the best way to do that was to become an Olympic sport," continues Scott. "That almost happened in 1940, as Professor Kano worked hard to get the 1940 Olympic Games for Tokyo, Japan and for judo to be included as one of the sports. History tells us that World War II stopped that, and it wasn't until 1964 when Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games that judo was included as a demonstration sport. Judo became a fully accepted sport for men in 1972 in the Munich Games and a demonstration sport for women in the 1988 Games held in Seoul, Korea and a fully accepted sport for women in 1992 in the Barcelona Games. Judo is now practiced in over 190 countries and regions and is truly an international sport. Judo, as a sport is based directly on its grounding as a method of physical education and development of a good character. As a result of judo's inclusion into the Olympic movement, millions of people have benefitted from judo's three-pronged approach as a method of sport, physical education, and character development. So, the world has benefitted from judo's inclusion into the Olympics and Professor Kano's goal of making Kodokan judo an activity that everyone can enjoy has come true."
The Tribulations of Taekwondo
In 1988, when Seoul was the Olympic host, there another process was in play for new sport candidates. They were first introduced as 'demonstration' sports. This was sort of a trial period – medals were awarded however they did not count towards the countries' overall medal tally. YMAA author Doug Cook is a six-time gold medalist in taekwondo and has authored four books for YMAA, Traditional Taekwondo—Core Techniques, History and Philosophy, Taekwondo Black Belt Poomsae: Original Koryo and Koryo, Taekwondo—A Path to Excellence, and Taekwondo—Ancient Wisdom For the Modern Warrior, as well as a video Taekwondo Black Belt: Original Koryo and Koryo. He is a certified taekwondo referee, has trained extensively in Korea, and bore witness to taekwondo's journey to become Olympic.
"First of all, you have to remember that taekwondo is very much like a coin," says Cook. "It has two sides. One is the traditional martial art of taekwondo as it was practiced after the liberation of Korea. And then you have the combat sport of taekwondo. Traditional martial arts is the way taekwondo was practiced from 1945 until the late 1960s before [Korea's] inclusion in the Olympics. And then after that, the Korean government saw its potential, not only for commercial profit but for cultural popularity of the sport. And in fact, taekwondo has become one of its greatest assets as far as popularity goes for Korea. But it changed the complexion of taekwondo entirely – gaining points and giving up techniques that are sure to score in the ring as opposed to techniques that were meant for self-defense. The fact that taekwondo is now, and has been an Olympic sport since 2000 (a full medal Olympic sport because originally in 1998, it became a demonstration sport) has been good for taekwondo in general because it has catapulted taekwondo into the public's eye and made the traditional martial art of taekwondo all that much more popular. But unfortunately the ramifications have been that people view taekwondo simply as a sport rather than the traditional martial art that it was intended to be.
"The fact that you can tune into the Olympics and see taekwondo as a full medal sport has definitely helped its popularity. And it's also caused a great influx of funds and money and things for athletes in Korea. What's practiced in Korea today is definitely the martial sport – or the combat sport of taekwondo – to the detriment of the martial art of taekwondo."
The Waywardness of Wushu
China tried to introduce Chinese martial arts at the 2008 Beijing Olympics but failed. This marked only the third time that the Summer Games had been held in an Asian nation. Japan got judo and Korea got taekwondo, so it seemed a given that China would get wushu, but it was not to be.
Sport wushu was a result of China's attempt to sportify the vast diversity of Chinese martial arts styles. In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, Mainland China modeled their new sport after gymnastics by developing a scoring system that focuses on difficult acrobatic movements. It is a spectacular manifestation of Chinese martial arts that has dominated cinema over the last few decades. Jet Li and Donnie Yen are a few of wushu's leading movie stars.
Despite its spectacle, sport wushu was denied in 2008. To give China some face, the Olympics staged the Wushu Tournament Beijing, a subsidiary event held within the Olympic grounds. However, this wasn't quite a demonstration sport because those had been eliminated by then. It was a special single competition designed to accommodate this exceptional situation. Wushu still aspires to be included as an Olympic event and applied again for the Paris 2024 games, however at this writing, it is not included and not likely to be added.
The Kick of Karate
"Finally, after more than 70 years, Japan's efforts to have Karate included into the Olympic Games bears fruit with the exciting result that a fascinating sport receives its well-deserved Olympic recognition." So says Dr. Hermann Bayer, the author of the upcoming YMAA book Analysis of Genuine Karate (October 2021). "This step concludes a difficult historical process filled with special interests, politics, socio-cultural frustrations, and hubris."
Dr. Bayer's book examines the Okinawan origins of karate, including Japan's efforts to enculturate and promote the art, so like many traditionalists, he has reservations about the conversion of martial arts to sport. He explains, "It all began before WWII, after mainland Japan assimilated karate, the genuine martial arts of its occupied territory, later prefecture, Okinawa, in a process called the "Japanization" of Okinawan karate. Initially, karate developed independently at its birthplace Okinawa for 500-1000 years, without any major connection to, or impact of, mainland Japan's more than a millennium-old bujutsu-, samurai- and budo-tradition.
"However, the pre-war hegemonic view of its own militaristic superiority and corresponding treatment of occupied territory explains Japan's attitude to claim karate as its own genuine Japanese martial art—which is of course correct in terms of its governmental sphere—but which is not correct in terms of sub-cultural heritage, and which fails to give appropriate credit to the "karate-inventing" and "karate-cultivating" region of Okinawa.
Now, at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo, governmental cultural integration efforts to create homogeneity within the cultural sphere of the nation, interrelated with sport-political considerations to create the (considerable) business opportunities of an Olympic discipline, preliminarily succeed. In order to be accepted at the Olympic Games, a sport must be widely practiced by men in at least seventy-five countries and on four continents, and by women in no fewer than forty countries and on three continents,and being represented by one national umbrella organization. Japan achieved this by a two-steps-approach; first, by changing Okinawan self-protection karate from a lethal martial art into self-perfecting, health and athletics-oriented sports karate. Second, after all lethal techniques were excluded, Japanese instructors were sent all across the world to boost its popularity as a cultural recreation and rule-bound competitive sport. They were successful indeed and these efforts created nothing less than a "sports-karate inflation", which within a short period of time became organized into national and international associations.
"We want to bear in mind that sports karate is neither classical Okinawan karate nor martial arts. It rather is the development of a new and fascinating modern sport with its own purpose and reason to exist, as was the case with other sport derivatives of other arts that had their origins in combat: javelin, fencing, archery, biathlon, and many others—without any need to create a special philosophical superstructure for it or to try to connect it with ancient combat.
"To preserve genuine Okinawan karate's existence and to counter mainland Japan's sports-political Karate annexation initiatives after WWII, Okinawans formed their own umbrella organizations, which in 2008 merged into one federation for all dentou Okinawan karate and kobudo. To this day the Okinawan karate groups do not belong to the Japan Karate Federation, nor do they intend to join."
Bruce Costa is another YMAA author with a book series, beginning with Welcome to Karate (September 2021). He echoes the concerns of traditional practitioners, and yet looks forward to this year's Games. "Many in my fraternity dispute the benefits of karate as an Olympic sport," admits Costa. "As a Shotokan karateka who considers the traditional ways to be the most enjoyable elements of the practice, I find arguments about Olympic involvement heralding the end of traditional practice to be specious. Master Funakoshi famously eschewed tournaments and sport karate, yet every traditional federation I know of encourages tournament participation. By the logic of the anti-Olympic movement, one must wonder if our founder would consider the loss to have already occurred.
"We are free to practice any way we choose in our dojos. Those of us who keep to the traditions—who understand the value of bowing when no one else is in the room—will find them under no threat at all. Instead, we'll enjoy the show and the positive influence it will have, both on those in training and on those who have yet to begin."
Karate has been a registered candidate as a new event since 2004 so Tokyo marks the fruition of a 17-year process. Like wrestling, which includes both freestyle and Greco-Roman, karate will have two divisions – kata and kumite. However, the karate event at the Tokyo Olympics is a one-off. It is not approved for the 2024 Paris Games. Perhaps it might return at the 2028 Los Angeles Games or the 2032 Brisbane Games. Whatever the future may hold for Olympic karate, this moment marks a proud achievement for the martial arts, a tremendous step toward increased international understanding of our treasured warrior legacy.
The Olympic karate events will begin on August 4th and run until August 8th, 2021.