Olympic Karate 8

The logo for the campaign to get karate into the 2020 Olympic Games

As most karateka already know, the WKF (World Karate Federation) is making a push to get karate into the 2020 Olympic Games. Specifics haven’t been ironed out, yet, but the marketing campaign is already underway. I am not particularly fond of the idea of Olympic karate for a couple reasons, although I understand where people are coming from with wanting karate to be an Olympic sport. There is a great deal of exposure to be had, and we could definitely use that momentum to help spread the art the way taekwondo and judo (the two most popular martial arts in the world) have done. I just don’t think it is in the best interests of the art.

Olympic Taekwondo

With regards to sparring, how can you justify to the non-martial-artist public that karate is any different from taekwondo? Nobody that I’ve run into that doesn’t train knows the difference, and they can’t tell the difference if you show them two videos for comparison, except that one video includes more padding. Along those lines, I suspect that the IOC would require the same protective gear for karate that they do for taekwondo. This makes it highly unlikely that karate sparring would be included in the Olympics, and the IOC’s concern for safety (or, at least, the appearance of safety) makes knockdown-style sparring pretty unlikely.

Usami Rika, WKF Kata Champion, now retired

So, if we go away from the sparring idea, another thought that has been brought up is kata competition. I can appreciate a well-performed kata as well as the next karateka, but over the past couple of years I have decided that I am not a proponent of kata competition. The idea that the performance of a kata can be judged to be better or worse than someone else’s based entirely on its appearance promotes showmanship over effectiveness. If kata competition is put into the Olympics, I see that being marketed as the ultimate goal of karate, and the idea of practical karate will fall by the wayside once again.

A current, modern karate competition

Now, all that being said, I don’t have any problem with people competing in tournaments and having that be their goal. If you have fun doing it and find value in it, then that’s great! I just think that, as a whole, the art will suffer if Olympic kata competition is marketed as being the highest possible achievement in karate, which is precisely what I fear will happen if it is included in the Olympics. If there were some way to make demonstrations of practical applications required for the kata competitions, then I may change my mind, but all the proposals I have seen look like they are trying to make karate into a performance art instead of a martial art.

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About Noah

I began training in karate (Shuri-Ryu) in the Summer of 2006. Subsequently, I started training in judo, kobudo, and iaijutsu within the next 6 months. During my training there, I earned the rank of Sankyu (3rd Degree Brown Belt) in Shuri-Ryu, Gokyu (Green Belt) in judo, a certification in the use of the bo, and passed proficiency tests for the four tachigata of Shinkage-Ryu iaijutsu. I moved to Arizona in the Summer of 2008, and continued training and researching karate at home. I continued regular training in judo at a local club until 2010, when I was able to start training in Shorin-Ryu with Sensei Richard Poage. I have been training with him ever since, and currently hold the rank of Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) in Shorin-Ryu under him. In addition, I began studying KishimotoDi under Sensei Ulf Karlsson in 2014.

8 thoughts on “Olympic Karate

  • SueC

    Woah! Where do I start? I agree with you entirely, the Olympics would be a disaster for karate. I have written about this a couple of times so I won’t re-iterate all my reasons here (I’ve put links to my posts at the bottom of this comment).

    The current renaissance in classical karate could be stopped in its tracks if many clubs started to re-focus their efforts on sports kumite and performance kata, which they would do if the demand for this increased (which it would when all the wannabe Olympic hopefuls came out of the woodwork). I hate to say it but let’s hope the WKF fail!

    Here’s the links:

  • Kamil Devonish

    While I appreciate the sentiment I don’t think anyone would say that Olympic basketball is the “ultimate goal” and pinnacle achievement of the basketball world. That would be the nba championship. In like manner there are many Olympic sports for which the Olympics are not the highest caliber of competition. I imagine Olympic karate, whatever form it might take, would be among them.

    • Noah

      For sports that have very well paid professional leagues, it makes sense that the Olympics is not the ultimate goal. The NBA pays fantastically, while the Olympics don’t. Tennis, soccer, and boxing also pay very well outside of the Olympics, for example. For sports that do not have well-paying professional organizations, though, I would argue that the Olympics are the largest stage and ultimate achievement. Wrestling, judo, and taekwondo are all combat sports that do not have well-paying professional organizations, and the Olympics are most definitely considered the ultimate achievement in those sports. I suspect that the same will be true of karate, unless someone develops a professional organization for it that can get you rich. That said, I would be against such an organization for the same reason I am against karate in the Olympics.

  • Myke B


    Thank you for posting this. In part it keeps me from badgering you over on the karateforums to get this up. There is not a lot of difference between your views and mine. While some see karate in the Olympics as a great thing I can only see it as a degrading factor for karate as a whole. The pressure will be on all dojos to teach the Olympic rules sparring or fall by the way side. “Olympic Training Center” and “Olympic Competition Approved” will become advertising by-lines. It is struggle enough to try to teach a traditional karate form that isn’t competition oriented and that has adult sparring rules closer to MMA unified rules than AAU competition rules. When you are suddenly not just the guy teaching the “weird karate stuff” with kata application, standing grappling, throws and contact below the waist, but the guy not teaching the kids stuff that lets them compete on a path that could lead to Olympic gold.

    Then, as you point out, you will head down the road of Judo and TKD where the rules of competition will begin to alter the art. How many Judo dojos teach ground technique as anything other than an after thought? What percentage of TKD dojangs spar exclusively in the Olympic style and neglect other techniques? Acceptance into the Olympics means a change for anything that isn’t pure sport already.

    • Noah

      I agree completely, Myke–those are the very same fears that I have about this push for Olympic karate. Thanks for the input!

  • Theodore Kruczek

    In the interest of playing devil’s advocate. I think it could potentially be a great thing for those of us wanting to promote a martial art instead of a performance art. You have long heard me suggest that the route forward for karateka who only want to focus on effective fighting is to change the name in the same manner that the masters did in the 1920-30’s from “China Hand” to “Open Hand”.

    If the average global perception of “Karate” became something very similar to Olympic TKD, it may be easier to unify the growing minority of karateka who want nothing to do with a sport.

    Excellent article.

    • Noah

      Thanks, Ted! I considered that possibility–that Olympic karate would create a rift that would help separate sport karate from practical karate–but it just doesn’t seem that likely. It didn’t happen with judo at all, and while it seems like it did happen with TKD, the practical side is so small that it might as well not exist as far as the general public is concerned. Still, it’s an interesting possibility!

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