Karate chops into Olympic rel­e­vance

The Myanmar Times - - Sport -

HOL­LY­WOOD may have kicked karate onto the world stage, but its first-ever in­clu­sion at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics prom­ises to shine a light on the rich his­tory of the dis­ci­pline. At 78, sen­sei Masahiro Nakamoto has been wait­ing decades for this de­ci­sion, in­sist­ing there is far more to the mar­tial art than the car­i­ca­ture de­picted in films such as Karate Kid and by ac­tion stars Chuck Nor­ris and Jean-Claude 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 (375 miles) 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 the Tokyo Games, 80 com­peti­tors will take part in the karate event. It joins surf­ing, skate­board­ing, climb­ing and base­ball-soft­ball as new sports 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, and yet it has strug­gled to make the case for in­clu­sion in the Games.

By con­trast, judo, a Ja­panese mar­tial art, 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 in­ter­pre­ta­tion rather than to work to­gether to cre­ate an 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 said.

Sport karate, for ex­am­ple, calls for com­pe­ti­tion rules where op­po­nents have to con­trol their blows, while tra­di­tional karate al­lows for harder shots but re­quires sig­nif­i­cant 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 jobs 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 in­clu­sion at the Tokyo 2020 Games will bring peo­ple to the sport.

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

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 an Olympic sport beyond 2020 how­ever, the IOC will 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 can be run over a few days.” –

Pho­tos: AFP

Karate mas­ter Takashi Nakamori, a high­rank­ing ex­pert of the Ok­i­nawa Kobudo tra­di­tional weapons sys­tem, uses a pair of tonfa to demon­strate his Ok­i­nawa Kobudo skills at a train­ing hall in Naha, Ok­i­nawa pre­fec­ture.

Karate com­pe­ti­tions like this one, in Tokyo, help se­lect Ja­panese rep­re­sen­ta­tives for the world cham­pi­onships on Au­gust 22.

Karate mas­ter Masahiro Nakamoto, the high­est-rank­ing ex­pert of the Ok­i­nawa Kobudo tra­di­tional weapons sys­tem, says karate is a lot more than a Hol­ly­wood buzz­word.

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