Sunday, 16 August 2009

Karate as an Olympic sport? I'm not so sure.

I don't know about you but I have mixed feelings about the IOC's rejection of karate as an Olympic sport for 2016.

On the one hand it is disappointing because I think karate is a world class level sport and it is exciting to watch. Personally I think it is more exciting to watch than either judo or taekwondo (but I may be a little biased!). Karate is more varied than either of these two martial arts with both kata and kumite events. However, I believe the proposal was for 5 different medal events, so whether that included kata and kumite or just kumite I don't know.

The details are immaterial though. It didn't get chosen. Other commentators have suggested that the reason it didn't get enough votes is because it has insufficient funds to effectively lobby the IOC and market itself with the public. Also the public understanding of karate is limited and they would be unable to distinguishing it sufficiently form judo and particularly taekwondo!

There is a side of me though that is relieved that karate didn't get picked. My concern would be that the modern sport side of karate would come to dominate. It would be seen as the most prestigious side of karate. The fit, most able people would gravitate to the sports side and the people preferring the traditional karate-do side would be considered 'second class'. This would be a great distortion of karate.

I know there is already world level competition in karate and my 'doom and gloom' prediction hasn't come to pass with that, but with it's lack of publicity and prime TV sports coverage, these competitions are only generally followed by other martial artists and competitors families/friends. It is not a sport that is in the general consciousness of the wider public and so karate has not been distorted by it. But make it an Olympic sport and it will be another matter. The Olympics is watched world wide by many people who have no interest in sport during the four year gap between events and then suddenly become 'couch enthusiasts' for two weeks!

They will form their impressions of karate from what they see, which will be two people sparring in short bursts with a cheering crowd in the background. To the uninitiated it will look similar to taekwondo or boxing. Only a tiny fraction of what karate is really about will be on display and that is what the public will think karate is.

If kata were an Olympic event what would the public make of that? Would they think it was some kind of weird athletic dance? In front of an informed martial arts audience the kata performance would be appreciated and understood but in front of a general audience I'm not so sure.

The other problem is how it may distort the training values of the competitors. Kumite will basically be seen as a method of controlled fighting in an arena with rules and referees and that is what people will just train to do. The consequences for kata would be even worse. The emphasis for competitors would be on the performance rather than the understanding of the kata. Though you may argue that to perform the kata well you need to understand the bunkai within it. However, to make it more exciting to a general audience perhaps there will be a temptation to make it more like gymnastics with leaps, spins and somersaults!

Am I just being a 'harbinger of doom' or do I have a valid point? What are your views on karate as an Olympic sport - are you in favour or against?

clip art courtesey of :


Anonymous said...

Hi, SueC. This post is very actual so I imediatelly write a post "Karate as an Olympic sport-we must wait to October 2009".
Best wishes to you and karate sport!

Dan Prager said...

I wonder what would have happened if judo kata had become the olympic sport, instead of judo shiai (randori). Perhaps it would have evolved in the direction of wushu (towards acrobatics and showiness); perhaps not.

Regardless, the lure of glory results inevitably in distortion of the art.


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