Karate on Olympic stage

> This mar­tial art will fi­nally be mak­ing its de­but in the Tokyo 2020 Games

The Sun (Malaysia) - - FEATURE -

HOL­LY­WOOD may have kicked karate onto the world stage, but its firstever in­clu­sion at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics prom­ises to shine a light on the rich history of the dis­ci­pline.

At 78, sen­sei (mas­ter) Masahiro Nakamoto has been wait­ing decades for this de­ci­sion, in­sist­ing that there is far more to the mar­tial art than the car­i­ca­ture de­picted in films such as Karate Kid, and by 80s ac­tion stars like Chuck Nor­ris and JeanClaude Van Damme.

“This is the art of de­fence,” the karate mas­ter told AFP at his dojo in Naha, Ok­i­nawa – an is­land chain some 600 kilo­me­tres from the south­ern tip of main­land Ja­pan.

“You don’t go just kick­ing and punch­ing, you re­ceive your op­po­nent’s blow. De­fend­ing your­self trans­lates into of­fence,” he added.

At Tokyo 2020, 80 com­peti­tors will take part in the karate event. It joins surf­ing, skate­board­ing, climb­ing, base­ball, and soft­ball as new sport in­cluded for the 2020 edi­tion.

“The dreams of the world’s karate ath­letes came true when the (In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee) made its de­ci­sion,” said Ja­pan Karate-Do Fed­er­a­tion vice pres­i­dent Shi­geo Kuri­hara.

“It’s an his­toric event – it was a day of joy for all of us.”

A blend of indige­nous fight­ing styles, karate was born in Ok­i­nawa in the 15th cen­tury when the area was ruled by the in­de­pen­dent Ryukyu King­dom.

Strong trad­ing links meant the sport was also in­flu­enced by Chi­nese mar­tial arts.

It is far older than the mod­ern Olympics and to­day, has at least 10 mil­lion reg­is­tered prac­ti­tion­ers world­wide. Yet it has strug­gled to make the case for in­clu­sion in the Games.

By con­trast, the Ja­panese mar­tial art judo and Korea’s taek­wondo are al­ready per­ma­nent fix­tures on the ros­ter.

Judo made its Olympic de­but when Tokyo hosted the 1964 Games, while taek­wondo made its first ap­pear­ance at the global event in 1988.

In­te­grat­ing karate into the Olympics has been de­layed by di­vi­sions in the move­ment around the world, with stal­warts long pre­fer­ring to ad­here to their own in­ter­pre­ta­tion, rather than work­ing to­gether to cre­ate a global art form.

“The va­ri­ety of styles – more than 20 – com­pli­cated ef­forts to unify karate,” said Fran­cis Di­dier, vice pres­i­dent of the World Karate Fed­er­a­tion.

“It took a bit too long to mod­ernise the rules of com­pe­ti­tion,” he ad­mit­ted.

Sport karate, for ex­am­ple, calls for com­pe­ti­tion rules where op­po­nents have to con­trol their blows, while tra­di­tional karate al­lows for harder shots, but re­quires pro­tec­tive gear, such as box­ing gloves and hel­mets.

The mar­tial art was only brought to Tokyo in the early 20th cen­tury when Gichin Fu­nakoshi, re­garded as the fa­ther of mod­ern karate, moved from Naha.

“Ok­i­nawa was the place where karate’s spirituality de­vel­oped,” ex­plains Kuri­hara.

Frus­tra­tions re­main, how­ever, that Ok­i­nawa’s role in the de­vel­op­ment of karate has been air­brushed out of history.

For Nakamoto, the Olympic Games in four years time is a chance to re­dress that.

“This is a great chance to show the world where karate has its roots. The world may be sur­prised to know that it was de­vel­oped here,” he said, adding that it was in­ex­orably linked to the is­land chain’s pol­i­tics.

When the Ryukyu King­dom ruled Ok­i­nawa for more than 400 years start­ing in the 15th cen­tury, brew­ers hired karate mas­ters to pro­tect ship­ments of indige­nous rice-based liquor called Awamori, Nakamoto ex­plained.

It was a vi­tal tool of di­plo­macy at the time – keep­ing lead­ers on good terms with China and Ja­pan.

“Brew­ers could sell their sur­plus, so it was the job of karate mas­ters to pro­tect con­voys from rob­bery,” Nakamoto said.

“In sum­mer, they would rest out­side and drink the spir­its – so it be­came part of the skill, to de­fend our­selves from at­tack while drunk, or asleep.”

Karate ex­pert and author Stephane Fauchard in­sists the Tokyo 2020 Games will bring peo­ple to the sport.

“This is go­ing to boost the sport’s vis­i­bil­ity,” he told AFP. “The Games are a great show­case.”

Still, Fauchard doesn’t ex­pect one big happy karate fam­ily.

He ex­plained: “Sport karate will con­tinue to de­velop in na­tional fed­er­a­tions, while tra­di­tional karate will still be taught in schools.

“They’ll both ben­e­fit from the me­dia at­ten­tion brought by the Olympics and con­tinue to ex­ist side by side.”

Karate will still have to prove its cre­den­tials to re­tain its sta­tus as an Olympic sport be­yond 2020 how­ever. The IOC will need to re­view whether its in­clu­sion was a suc­cess.

Di­dier ar­gues it’s clear why karate should re­main in the Games af­ter 2020.

“Karate is rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive, and ath­letes com­pete in the same arena as their judo and wrestling coun­ter­parts, and com­pe­ti­tions can be run over a few days.” – AFP

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