TOKYO – Every city that hosts the Olympics is pushing for popular events in their country to be included in the program, and Tokyo is no different. Japanese organizers successfully lobbied for baseball to return after a dozen years of absence and for surfing to make its debut.
The International Olympic Committee also approved the request by Japanese organizers to include karate as a medal-winning sport, an improvement over the cameo it made as a demonstration sport at the Tokyo Games in 1964.
Thanks in part to Hollywood movies, karate is perhaps the best known of the martial arts. It forms the basis of many other martial arts, including taekwondo, and has many followers around the world.
Karate has its roots in the southern Japanese islands of Okinawa, where it was developed centuries ago. It is therefore fitting that one of the favorites for the gold medal of the three-day tournament which starts on Thursday is Ryo Kiyuna, an Okinawan. Three-time individual world champion, Kiyuna will compete in the men’s kata part on Friday, and if he meets expectations, he will be the first Okinawa to win an Olympic gold medal.
“Since karate was ultimately selected as an official event at the Tokyo Olympics, I would like to show the world what karate is, both as a representative of Japan and as a representative of Okinawa,” said he told Jiji Press last year.
Casual observers of the sport are probably familiar with kumite, where two fighters face off against each other and attempt to punch and kick their opponents to score points.
Kata, on the other hand, includes the building blocks of karate performed against an imaginary opponent, traditional aspects of the martial art that purists appreciate. In kata, athletes perform alone, demonstrating a series of offensive and defensive movements. Karateka chooses from 102 katas, or techniques, approved by the World Karate Federation.
The seven judges base 70 percent of a score on technical skill, which includes focus, breathing, timing and positions. The remaining 30 percent is based on athleticism, including strength and speed.
Kiyuna has dominated the kata world in recent years, the only karateka to achieve a perfect score, which he did in 2019. Now 31, he started practicing karate at age 5, inspired to join a kindergarten friend. He started winning competitions and studied with Tsuguo Sakumoto, a karate master from Okinawa. In 2014, Kiyuna overtook his biggest rival, Antonio Díaz of Venezuela. His main competitor at the Tokyo Games is Spaniard Damián Quintero, who finished second behind Kiyuna in the last two world championships.
According to Masahiro Ide, who runs a newsletter for karate fans, Kiyuna has exceptional speed, sharpness and strength, and precise techniques.
“His movements are so strong that the judges can feel his power just from his appearance, which allows him to score high,” said Ide, who expects Kiyuna to win a gold medal. . “He’s also good at harnessing power from himself. “
Unfortunately for karate fans, the sport will not be on the program for the Paris Games in 2024. Karate supporters were hoping that its inclusion in Tokyo would increase the sport’s popularity just as taekwondo benefited from its addition to the Olympic program at the Games. of Sydney in 2000.
For now, the sport will be shown widely in Tokyo this week, with Kiyuna and Okinawa as two of the main attractions.
“The Japanese think karate is theirs and they want to regain their dominance,” said Sherman Nelson Jr., karate analyst for NBC Sports. “The world has caught up. Sport is a melting pot. Everyone has to adapt.