Olympic Karate: Everything You Need To Know Before Watching

Karate is one of the first sports that comes to mind when anybody mentions martial arts. It’s such a popular combat style that there are entire subcultures built around it. Like wrestling and other sports that are remnants of older hand-to-hand fighting arts, karate will be one of the featured games in the 2020/2021 Olympics. An even 80 karatekas, practitioners of the style, will come together from all around the globe to see which country’s teams are destined to take home one of eight gold, silver, or bronze medals in events that are sure to hold all the punchtastic and kickingist action any of us can hope to imagine.

Though karate is definitely a heavy-hitting and exciting event, it’s not as well known as Olympic boxing or wrestling. The history of the sport and how it’s exercised in Olympic competition isn’t something that’s usually talked about when the games roll around every four years mostly because it’s one of the newest additions to the international competition, but we’re here to give you the rundown. Here’s everything you need to know before watching the Olympic karate events.

First included in the 2020/2021 Olympic Games

The sport of karate has been forced to sit back and watch other martial arts enjoy the spotlight of the Olympic Games for decades. Wrestling, taekwondo, judo, fencing, and boxing have become a normal part of the glorious quaternary event while karate was tearing it up in movies, tv shows, and, of course, the World Karate Federation tournaments and other such events. That’s because, as the USA Olympic Team website points out, it wasn’t until the 2020, postponed to 2021, games in Tokyo that this sport was allowed to claim what many martial artists would agree to be its proper place, despite the attention the sport has garnished with The Karate Kid/Cobra Kai franchise. That is, karate wasn’t allowed into the games until now.

Why is this odd exactly? Well, according to Karate Atlanta, karate is one of the most popular martial arts in the world. In fact, the Nippon Communications Foundation says, as of 2017, over 100 million people worldwide practice the art of karate across 192 countries, which many would argue makes it a true international competition worthy of being included in the Olympics since, you know, they have games like curling and stuff.

The sport is debuting in the country it came from

Sure, the Olympic Committee denied karate entry into the games since — well — since the worldwide event first began, but maybe that’s only because they were waiting for the most fitting location they could think of to reveal the sport for the first time. The 2020 games, after all, are being held in Japan, the birthplace of karate.

In the history laid by the Japan Karate Association, karate, as we know it today, originated in the collection of Japanese islands known as Okinawa roughly 500 years ago, or so it’s believed. The martial art that karate stems from appeared on the islands long before that thanks to the region’s abundant history of trade with China. Apparently, a few of the things they traded back then were the secrets of how to whoop some serious behind, which is how a form of Chinese Kempo was brought over to the Okinawan people. That kempo would be developed into martial art called “te” and later karate over an unknown number of years.

From Okinawa, karate would spread into the culture of other Japanese islands, and, according to Karate Atlanta, would reach its wave of international fame after WWII.

Olympic karate consists of two competitions

The karate you’ll watch during the 2020 Olympics will come in all different shapes and sizes. There are multiple different styles of the art, multiple associations within each art, multiple schools for each of those, and so on. And you’ll see all of them compete in two different competitions.

One of the competitions you’ll see is called “Kata.” Katas are series of movements strung together that a single practitioner can use to practice the art, also known as “forms” in the general martial arts world. According to the Olympics website, the Kata event will have a single gold medal for men and for women, totaling two medals.

The other karate competition is known as “Kumite.” Kumite is the karate word for “fight” used to describe competition sparring. Unlike doing movements by yourself on the floor, competitors will be kicking the crap out of each other. And in an event like that, weight classes are necessary.

Weight classes and scoring

The Kata event won’t have weight classes, but it will be broken up into a men’s and women’s competition. Each competitor will perform one of 102 approved Katas, according to the official Olympics webpage, in a performance akin to the gymnastics floor competition. They’ll be scored on a point system based primarily on their athletic and their technical skills.

When it comes to the Kumite event, things get a bit heavier. There are three weight classes for men and women, which is a condensed version of the typical weight classes the World Karate Federation uses. That means the big guys and gals have to fight the biggest guys and gals, and the same goes for the small vs. the smallest. The scoring system will also be point-based, with each competitor gaining points in a match when they land solid and approved techniques. Competitors will win a match and advance if they get eight points ahead of their opponent or have the highest number of points at the end of the three-minute round. In the case of a tie, judges will make the final decision.

Strikes in Kumite can only be thrown to the head, neck, and all sides of the torso. Yes, knockouts can happen. Yes, it will be exciting.

Karate won't be going to the 2024 Olympics

Karate has had a difficult time making it into the Olympics. For example, according to Karate Atlanta, the International Olympic Committee(IOC) voted against the inclusion of karate in the upcoming games. Well, even with the sport’s luck in the 2021 games in Tokyo, Japan, things don’t seem to be looking much better in the near future. In 2019, as BBC notes, when the shortlist of sports was announced for the 2024 Paris Olympics, karate didn’t make the cut.

On the Paris Olympics website, you’ll see all sorts of not-very-popular sports, such as water polo. You’ll even see a few new additions, including breakdancing of all things. It almost seems like the IOC is trying to throw in a few random events every four years just to keep things exciting, and people within the karate community aren’t happy about it. The head of the World Karate Association relayed the organization’s sadness over the decision to Reuters, pointing out a few solid arguments he believed would’ve granted the sport of karate a shot in this particular games. First off, he says the sport has met all of the requirements for inclusion. Next, he mentions that France has extremely strong karate competitors, and they should surely want to show that off. And, finally, he points out that this announcement came before the 2020 Olympics got to see what karate had to offer. It was a real kick in the teeth for the sport.

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