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Olympic Karate – A Good Fit?

by Jim Rielly

Tokyo will host the 2020 Olympics and their Olympic Committee has proposed adding five new sports to the Summer games - skateboarding, sports climbing, surfing, baseball/softball, and …. karate!

The vote comes up at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) session in Rio in August. It's generating a lot of controversy, though. In fact, karate has been rejected by the IOC on three previous votes. Judo joined the Olympics in the 1964 Tokyo games and Taekwondo in the 2000 Sydney games. So why not karate yet?

Many reasons have been cited, including the fact that there are so many different styles of karate, each one having different lineages, focuses, philosophies, and forms. It's near impossible to pick just one to use for official purposes at the Olympics — it would be like proclaiming that one style is more "correct" than the others. However, karate is already an official sport in the Asian Games held every four years and billed as the second-largest multi-sport event after the Olympics, so there are generally accepted sport rules to follow.

The group the IOC recognized to bid—the World Karate Federation—allows only minimal sparring contact. The IOC has recognized the WKF as the international governing body of karate since 1999 but there are many styles/schools/associations which aren't members of the WFK, notably the JKA and Kyokushinkai. Many are hoping to have both minimal and full contact karate represented. The Japan Full-contact Karate Organization collected a million signatures across Japan last year backing the idea of two karate events at the Olympics, full-contact and non-contact, but the campaign has failed to budge the WKF. "Having techniques that reward injuring the opponent is not the best message we could give as a sport karate federation," says World Karate Federation President Antonio Espinos, whose group says it represents more than 90% of organized karate followers. And this is the crux of the debate - is karate a sport? Traditionalists - and I think that includes all of us here at Takahashi Karate - feel karate is far more than that.

On our walls and in every Shotokan dojo I've ever stepped foot in hang Funakoshi Sensei's Dojo Kun or Precepts. Many dojo recite them at each practice to remind students what Funakoshi sensei thought was most important:

  • -seek perfection of character
  • -be faithful
  • -endeavor
  • -respect others
  • -refrain from violent behavior

Nothing here speaks of sport or combat — it's about personal development. One would be very hard pressed to find any sport that puts such importance on personal development.

Funakoshi Sensei also published Twenty Guiding Principles or Nijuu Kun:

Don't forget that karate-do starts and ends with a bow.
Hitotsu, karate-do wa rei ni hajimari rei ni owaru koto o wasuruna

There is no first strike in karate.
Hitotsu, karate ni sente nashi

Karate stands on the side of justice.
Hitotsu, karate wa, gi no tasuke

First know yourself, then know others.
Hitotsu, mazu onore o shire, shikashite ta o shire

Mentality over technique.
Hitotsu, gijutsu yori shinjitsu

The heart must be set free.
Hitotsu, kokoro wa hanatan koto o yosu

Calamity springs from carelessness.
Hitotsu, wazawai wa ketai ni seizu

Karate goes beyond the dojo.
Hitotsu, dojo nomino karate to omou na

Karate is a lifelong pursuit.
Hitotsu, karate-do no shugyo wa issho de aru

Apply the way of karate to all things. Therein lies its beauty.
Hitotsu, ara yuru mono o karateka seyo; soko ni myomi ari

Karate is like boiling water; without heat, it returns to its tepid state.
Hitotsu, karate wa yu no gotoshi taezu netsu o ataezareba moto no mizu ni kaeru

Do not think of winning. Think, rather, of not losing.
Hitotsu, katsu kangae wa motsuna; makenu kangae wa hitsuyo

Make adjustments according to your opponent.
Hitotsu, tekki ni yotte tenka seyo

The outcome of a battle depends on how one handles emptiness and fullness (weakness and strength).
Hitotsu, tatakai wa kyojitsu no soju ikan ni ari

Think of hands and feet as swords.
Hitotsu, hito no teashi wa ken to omoe

When you step beyond your own gate, you face a million enemies.
Hitotsu, danshi mon o izureba hyakuman no teki ari

Formal stances are for beginners; later, one stands naturally.
Hitotsu, kamae wa shoshinsha ni ato wa shizentai

Perform kata exactly; actual combat is another matter.
Hitotsu, kata wa tadashiku, jisen wa betsumono

Do not forget the employment of withdrawal of power, the extension or contraction of the body, the swift or leisurely application of technique.
Hitotsu, chikara no kyojakutai no shinshuku waza no kankyu o wasuruna

Be constantly mindful, diligent, and resourceful, in your pursuit of the Way.
Hitotsu, tsune ni shinen ku fu seyo

I believe in these kun and try to practice them in my daily life. I don't look at karate like going to the gym or skiing… it colors my life in everything I do. No sport has ever influenced the way I look at myself and others and the world around me like karate has and I don't think any sport could. I do enjoy sparring with rules and contact so I do think that karate can include that sport aspect but I worry that focusing on competition pulls the mind away from combat applications (high kicks get points, kicks to the knees do not but I know which I would use in a fight!). I worry most that focus on competition is blind to all karate has to offer as a Do - a deep, rich and life- long personal development. Popular opinion supports the inclusion of karate in the Olympics in some form so it's likely to be finally included in 2020 and we're sure to see some changes in the karate world but we can be certain that there will remain schools that will maintain focus on tradition.

The question, then, is: can karate incorporate a strong sport aspect and yet maintain itself as a Do, a way of life?