Monday, 13 August 2012

The Olympics would be the ruin of karate...

As we draw close the end of the London 2012 Olympics the IOC (International Olympic Committee) will start their analysis of the games and start voting on which sports to relegate from the next Olympics in Rio in 2016 and what new sports to add. Karate is on the list of potential new sports to add to the games next time around.

KARATE IS NOT A SPORT! At least real budo karate is not a sport.

The problem with taking a traditional martial art and turning it into a sport is that the sport version, by necessity, is reductionist. Sport reduces a martial art to a few basic moves that can be executed quickly and efficiently in a rule based environment. Karate as sport is reduced to not much more than gyaku zuki, mawashi geri, ura mawashi geri, ashi barai and various combinations of these moves. In many modern karate clubs the students actually think that kumite means ‘sport karate’. How far from the original meaning is that?

Then there’s kata – we all know that when kata is done for competition purposes it becomes all about aesthetics and performance. You don’t actually need to know what a kata means to put on a good performance. Don’t get me wrong, I like to see kata performed well; I admire people who can do it, there is a lot of skill in a good kata performance. I’m not knocking a good performance but all style and no substance is not what kata is about. Again competition reduces kata to a superficial state.

We only have to look at the traditional martial arts that are already represented in the Olympics to see the negative effect it has had on the art. I watched some of the judo live at the ExCel centre. I was bowled over by the atmosphere of being in the arena watching the event. I wasn’t so bowled over by the judo though. I hadn’t watched a judo competition before and had expected to witness some spectacular and varied throws, locks and pins. Most of what I saw was contestants clawing at each other to get a grip on the gi, leg sweeps and a quick pin on the ground. It seemed very reductionist – I’m pretty sure judo has more to offer than that. In fact I know it has more to offer than that because I have seen judo demonstrations at martial arts festivals. Even though judo was developed as a combat sport I’m sure Kano would be turning in his grave at how reductionist it has become.

Then there’s taekwondo. Like karate, taekwondo was not developed as a sport originally. I’m pretty certain that sport taekwondo does not resemble the traditional art one iota. It has been reduced to bouncing around with loose arms and kicking out to the body and head like a couple of kangaroos! But real taekwondo has forms and self-defence applications just like karate. The only way traditional taekwondo manages to survive is for it to have branched off from the sports version and be governed by the Kukkiwan (Traditional taekwondo headquarters) in Korea.  I doubt there are many traditional taekwondo clubs left outside Korea though.

Once a traditional martial art becomes an Olympic event the rush to get ‘Olympic Standard’ competitors means that many clubs turn themselves over entirely to training only in the sport version of their art. Clubs teaching the full range of the art will fall into decline unless they divorce themselves completely from the sport.

The situation for karate would be even more dire than it is for taekwondo. The reason karate is not yet an Olympic sport is because there are too many styles, too many governing bodies (that don’t agree with each other) and too many styles of competition.  Some styles risk going out of existence altogether: Assume karate becomes an Olympic sport but full-contact competition isn’t allowed – what will happen to styles like kyokushin karate? Will its popularity decline? And what about weight categories? Would they have to be introduced? Would sport karate as we know it have to change out of all recognition? Some styles wear a full-range of protective gear and others have nothing other than a gum shield and sparring mits. So even if you are a fan of sport karate you would probably have to make many changes to your sport if it became an Olympic event.

Karate is already practiced as a sport you may argue. We already have national and international karate competitions in a range of styles and yet traditional karate still exists – so what difference will making karate an Olympic event make?

I think it will make a big difference. Karate competitions currently are not broadcast on mainstream TV and tend to attract only audiences of family, friends and fellow sports karate enthusiasts. It remains below the consciousness of the general public. If you make it an Olympic sport then it will be televised worldwide to a very diverse audience who will expect to be thrilled and entertained by it. Karate is not entertainment, it is budo. To entertain the public sport karate will become more sensationalist – you already see this in some kata competitions where kata have become like gymnastic displays. It will only get worse.

The Olympics will be the death knell of real karate. Karate should be a life-long pursuit, accessible to all for the whole of their lives if they so wish. If we are only left with sport karate then, like most sports, in will become the domain of younger people only.

Anyone who values REAL karate should be opposed to karate as an Olympic event. What do you think? I have put a poll in the right side bar of this blog so that you can vote, or leave me a comment…

(If you are a martial arts blogger and you disagree with me then why not write a post giving your opposing view i.e. why the Olympics will be good for karate, and let’s have a debate!)

Update: result of the poll....

Do you think karate should be an Olympic Event?

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Kamil said...

I like a lively debate as much as the next person, Sue :-) But I think that your post is trying to bait people into participating rather than expressing your true opinion. 'Ruin of Karate', "Death knell"...Overly dramatic. Tournament karate has been around for 60 years - Funakoshi thought it was a bad idea - and budo karate is still here. It's not going anywhere because the difference between kumite point-fighting and bunkai kumite for self-defence is laughably obvious.

I don't think karate should be in the Olympics either. I think the Karate community should move back to its combative and defensive origins. I especially don't see the value in having Olympic karate unless there is a serious revision of the rules so that it is farther from the point fighting of TKD and closer to the much more combative feeling of boxing. Putting karate in there to be exactly the same as TKD point-fighting - that would be pointless (pun intended)!

Having said that, I was just reading a book by Heiko Bittmann with a translation of Miyagi Chojun's "General outline of the way of the Chinese Hand" where Miyagi - the founder of Goju-Ryu - states: "We must try harder still in the future to perfect protective equipment, a problem for years, in order to merge with the spirit of the general Japanese Ways of the Martial Arts through possibly having tournaments to the same extent as the other martial arts." So clearly, Miyagi Sensei sees some merit in competition. Food for thought.

John Coles said...

Oi! If you are going to use our national symbol to denigrate something, at least spell it right. It's kangaroo not kanagaroo.

Having said that, I agree with your proposition, over dramatics and all.

I recall seeing a TKD exponent throwing both feet at his opponent's head as he fell to the ground. In the sports arena, fantastic technique. By turning his back and lifting both feet of the ground, the opponent cannot score if they make contact. Conversely, the kicker gains maximum points if their toe touches the opponent's head. Now try that technique on the street.

Combat sport is to combat, as synchronised swimming is to swimming.

Btw - congrats on the olympics, and the Brit result. Good God, even Murray can win a tournament at Wimbeldon because of the Brit olympic spirit.

Sue C said...

Kamil, sorry if I sounded like a drama queen - didn't mean to, it's just that I'm quite passionate about karate not becoming an Olympic sport.

You say that tournament karate has been around for 60 years and budo karate is still here. I'd argue that real budo karate is very hard to find outside Okinawa, there are not many traditional dojo left - most are clubs that offer some traditional stuff along with the sport stuff, such is the impact that sport karate has had on the art. I think this will only get worse if karate becomes an Olympic sport.

Many karate clubs are trying to get back to some combative and defensive origins but this would be thwarted if there was suddenly a huge demand for sport karate. I think what Miyagi had in mind for competition would not be acceptable in an Olympic arena - health and safety issues would prevent it. Sport has to be clean, I think that Miyagi's version would not have been!

John, unreserved apologies for misspelling your national symbol - I will correct it immediately!

Sport TKD is just wierd, what else can I say!

Even Murray! I felt sorry for Federer though - he's used to having the Wimbledon crowd with him but alas they were all with Murray, Federer seemed a bit shell-shocked by that response...

. said...

After watching the Olympic Martial offerings at London 2012 I totally agree Sue. It definitley would not be good for karate as a whole.


The Strongest Karate said...

I am torn, honestly. On the one hand I would LOVE to watch two crazy Kyokushin fighters wail on each other with fierce blows building to a climax of a jodan hiza geri. It would be MAGNIFICIENT!

On the other, I don't think that the Olympic committee, nor the public, would understand the spirit of knockdown karate. They would force thick boxing gloves, foot padding, head gear, and (worst yet) chest protectors on the competitors.

And I agree that with any sanctioned fight the competitors would naturally tailor their fighting to the rule set and thus leave out so many valuable techniques. imagine seeing a Kyokushin fighter receiving Gold and glory. Well, I am just not ready to close the door on the idea just yet.

Felicia said...

Hi, Sue...

Although I agree with you in principle (I watched parts of the Olympic TKD competition with my mouth open, wondering what the heck was going on - and why no one threw any techniques with their arms at all), but I don't think Olympic karate will be the death of traditional karate. Like Kamil said, sport karate - on local, regional, national and international levels - has been around for a long time and still traditional karate exists. Of course there is a difference between the two, but I'm not one to give sport karate the big "HMMPH!" because not only do I have friends and training partners who compete internationally (one is actually competitng today, in fact)- I also compete every now and then(although on much smaller levels). Contrary to popular belief, it IS possible to do one without forsaking the other.

The other part of it is that it might actually increase interest in karate, just like seeing the World Cup increases soccer club tryout participants, the World Series amps up little league interest and watching Olympic gymnastics and swimming makes for long waiting lists in local gyms and pools around the globe. That isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Sue said...

Hi Marie, glad you're in agreement :)

Brett, I think Kyokushin fighters would look great too but like you say the public would not understand or accept that level of contact. Your type of karate sparring just would not make it as an Olympic event. Only touch contact point sparring with whole body protection and minimal techniques would make it as an Olympic event. It would be a very pale imitation of real karate. Modern point sparring is just a bit of competitive fun - it is not designed to showcase or test out effective self-defence techniques. Not any more anyway and certainly not as an Olympic event.

Felicia, I'm not against sport karate per se, I'm only against sport karate as an Olympic event.

The idea that sport karate has not eroded traditional karate over the last 60 years is not true. There has been a huge decline in clubs that offer a full and proper training in traditional applied karate. Most clubs offer a hybrid of some applied stuff along with the sport stuff - they have become Jack of all trades and master of none, there is just not enough time in most classes to do both types of karate well. This will get worse if karate is in the Olympics and there is a lot of pressure on clubs from wannabee olympians to concentrate on just sport karate.

Sport karate is here to stay and I wouldn't want to get rid of it. I'm just saying lets keep things as they are with the range of different kinds of competition we already have to suit different karate styles.

I don't think we should underestimate the effect becoming an Olympic Event will have on both the art and sport of karate - it will not be pretty!

Charles James said...

Sue: Sadly, the greatest majority of martial arts in the America's is "sport" even when they say otherwise it is still a "sport dominated" practice.

Very few differentiate between sport, defense, and budo orientation.

Sigh .... great post!

Kamil said...

I could be underestimating the effect of the Olympics, but, to my mind, true budo karate has always been difficult to find. Whether it was called Toudi, or Ti, or shuri-te, or naha-te or tomari-te or karate, the quality instruction and practice has never been widespread. It is difficult for budo karate to grow because its demands are far greater than being ready to fight at a tournament every 4 years. But it endures because it gives you something much more valuable than a Gold medal.

Training for tournament karate teaches some very important values - dedication, goal-setting and hard work - that are never out of place in a dojo. However, I feel strongly and speak from some personal experience when I say that travelling far enough along the sport karate road leads you back to the question of budo. You begin to see the rules of tournament as a strait jacket. If a karateka persists past this, they invariably come back to where karate all started - protecting yourself and personal growth. Just because Olympic karate causes people to join for the sake of competing doesn't mean that they might not stay for other deeper reasons.

Steve said...

Interesting post. I've been mulling your article over and enjoying the comments. In some ways, your post echoes conversations going on within the BJJ community (although I know that some traditional martial artists consider BJJ a "sport" and not a martial art).

First, I agree with you completely that inclusion within the Olympics isn't necessarily a good thing. There are many people in BJJ who advocate inclusion, particularly with the 2016 Olympics being held in Rio. But, there are just as many who point to Judo and TKD and suggest that it might not be good for the art, for the same reasons you articulate in your post.

First, there's the "sport" versus "art" vs "self defense" arguments that crop up. Within BJJ we already have this, but it just gets worse.

Second, there are the inevitable changes in the rulesets. Kyokushin Karate already has a well developed competitive outlet, for example. So does BJJ. But as we've seen in TKD and Judo, these rules will be changed in order to make the competition more accessible to the lay-viewer.

Interesting side note, the rules for Judo have been streamlined specifically to increase the likelihood of the spectacular throws you were looking for to the detriment of the art as a whole.

Finally, in order to be included in the Olympics, there must be both an international governing body as well as a National governing body for each participating country. That introduces (or amplifies) the politics involved within the art.

All of that to say that there are many practical reasons to resist the seductive appeal of the International stage that the Olympics would bring to your style.

One other thing, though, regarding your assessment of the Judo. While you were expecting spectacle and saw what you described as "reductionist," the truth is somewhere in between for Judo and would also be for BJJ or karate.

Judo has the capacity for high amplitude throws, but high level grappling is subtle and I would ask you to consider the possibility that you just don't have the experience with grappling to understand the complexities involved (just as I wouldn't expect to understand the subtleties involved in a well done kata or kumite). The truth is that the rules for Judo continue to be streamlined in order to make the spectacular throws more common, but they really have little to do with the core art, and as a fellow grappler, I was overwhelmed by the skill on display by the judoka.


Sue C said...


Not just America, same all over the West I should think.


You have some very good points here and I don't disagree with you but I think one of the reasons budo karate is hard to find in the west is because of the popularity of the sport side. The emergence of sport karate has slowly eroded the practice of budo karate over the last 60 years or so. I still think this erosion will speed up if karate becomes an Olympic event. Some of the problem probably lies with clubs that can't decide whether they are sports clubs or budo clubs - I think students sometimes get a bit confused about what exactly it is they are doing...I appreciate your continued contribution to this discussion - thank you.


I didn't realise the same discussions were going on in the BJJ world. I suspect it would be a bad thing for your art too. It sounds like you are on the same wave-length as me on this subject.

regarding judo: you are perfectly right to correct my judgement on this. As a non-grappler I didn't really know what I was looking at - if you say the grappling was good then I believe you!

Unknown said...

I must agree with the heart and soul of your article. Making Karate into an Olympic sport would be a bad idea.
However; if I may play devil's advocate for a moment, is this not just the natural progression of the Martial arts in general. The history of Judo was to preserve it in schools for educational purposes, and Funakoshi did follow this route to some degree by teaching it to University students. Judo "missionaries" were responsible for teaching in influencing one of the greatest Western Judo dynasties: the Gracies of Brazil and Royce Gracie had a profound influence on the Mixed Martial arts phenomenon in the United States.
But, Perhaps if we look at the percentage of the population that trains in the martial arts, compared to "true" or the traditional Karate practitioners. The proliferation of sport karate has helped to make it more common place.
The proliferation of Olympic sport Karate could raise the percentages of Dojos, and with that a marginal increase in the Art and Self protection schools as well.
We could see a net increase!

Neal Martin said...

Do the Olympics really have that much impact? Are they not just another TV spectacle to be instantly forgotten about when they are over and replaced by American X Factor or whatever?

Point is, I don't think the Olympics will influence people much, especially those who are thinking of taking up Karate or Judo. What will impact students the most is the school in which they train and the instructor(s) who teaches them. If the training in a school is biased towards sport or tradition, then a student will be affected by that.

If someone wants to compete, nothing is going to stop them from doing that. They'll find a school that will allow them to do that. In the meantime, the traditional schools will keep on doing what they do as usual.

I think you are over-estimating the amount of influence the Olympics would have on Karate. What matters most is the goals a student of Karate has. Their particular training goals (art, sport, self defence) will dictate the type of training they do, not what they saw on the Olympics.

And if we end up with a proliferation of sport orientated Karate schools, so what? As long as you are doing what you want to do, and training in the way that suits you, staying true to your art (if that's what matters most to you) then that's all that matters.

You can't stop other people from doing what they want to do. Things change. As hard as it is to see traditions being decimated and bastardized and "modernized", you have to accept there is nothing you can do about it except carry on doing your own thing and staying true to your own beliefs.

Sue C said...

Hi Earl, I understand what you are saying but don't you think the proliferation of sports karate clubs is a 'demand' led progression rather than a natural one? If we dangle the Olympic karate carrot over young wanabees then we will create even more demand for sports only karate clubs (offering Olympic style karate). Now if you like sport karate then you won't think this is a bad thing but something, somewhere will have to give (there's only a finite number of instructors). My guess is that the teaching of traditional karate will give way to meet the new demand for sport. I can't see us getting a marginal increase in traditional karate schools - who will be left to teach it?

Neal, yes I do think the Olympics will have a big impact. The influence of 'Olympic heroes' is not instantly forgotten. I bet right now there is a big increase in the number of people enquiring about judo and taekwondo lessons, not to mention boxing as well. People watch a road race and go out and buy a bike the next day such is the inspiring nature of the Olympics, it's not like other sporting events. My concern is that people looking for more traditional clubs may actually have a hard time finding one a few years after karate becomes an Olympic event, in which case they will choose another self-defence based art and karate will suffer even more - it will be a negative spiral. It will be hard to stay true to your beliefs if you can't find the right kind of instructor to guide you.

I don't want to stop sport karate, I just want to keep things the way they are - there is some kind of balance in the system at the moment between sport and tradition, this balance will be upset by Olympic karate.

James. said...

No Karate would loose it's way if it followed the WTF Taeqwondo olympic model, WTF do still have forms and self defence, but many argue that ITF Taeqwondo (which I practised for a while) is however still very much the real martial art, I have no strong opinion on that, surely if WTF schools get people into martial arts thats a good thing. I now practice EKKA taeqwondo, this a fusion of Wudoryu Karate Taeqwondo and Jujitsu (with some kungfu influence), so we have Kata's lots of self defence and all the tradition, I find the training structure has many similarities to Karate ( I used to practice Gojuryu) so yes the martial art can survive.

Sue C said...

Hi James, I hope you turn out to be right and karate becoming an Olympic event wouldn't affect the availability of traditional karate. I agree that the Olympics would 'get people into karate'. The problem is it will be the wrong kind of karate (from my perspective). I appreciate you sharing your view but I'm still not convinced :(

Anonymous said...

Hi Sue, lots of food for thought in the post and debate. I watched some of the Olympic taekwondo on tv and have followed some of the debates about kicks and punches and the electronic scoring.
At my club (WTF but I have trained briefly in ITF too) we have some who compete at various levels - if they want to specialise to compete at national / international level then they attend other specific sessions and join in with ours as and when.
We have a mix of sparring, forms, as well as application to e.g. street self-defence. Some of the competitive movements as you have mentioned are not applicable outside of a sporting competition - any more than above head height side kicks.
A lot of the politics around the organisation within the sport seems to dominate the media too with the publicity influencing WTF mgmt and vice versa, I expect that would cause similar problems for karate too.

Sue C said...

Hi Nicola, sorry about the delay in replying - just got back from holiday!

Thanks for your thoughts on the subject. It's good to hear that there are some TKD clubs that offer a broad range of the art and not just the competitive stuff. Perhaps there's hope for karate yet!

Unknown said...

OSU! I would love if kyokushin was added to the olympics, but i agree that the public would not understand our full head gear,kicks to the head etc.

Sue C said...

Kwame, alas, you're right, they wouldn't understand. It's probably in your interests that karate doesn't become an Olympic sport. The popularity of kyokushin karate may decline if people realise it won't be a valid 'Olympic' style...

Unknown said...

Hi, probably over simplifying things but on one level isn't Budo about discipline and perfection of technique! So sport Karate could still be viewed as Budo if the warrior spirit is in their training! It is perhaps a greater distancing from the Jutsu!

Sue C said...

Hi James, I agree that some of the mental and physical aspects that are a part of budo are also a part of high level sport - self-discipline, focus, commitment, high level of fitness, daily practice etc. However, they are applied using the wrong mindset i.e win at any cost and soak up the adulation of the crowd; in my opinion,that is not the mindset of budo.


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