One of the five sports added to the programme at Tokyo 2020, karate will finally see its Olympic pursuit that spanned several decades come to fruition.
In 2015, the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee proposed to the International Olympic Committee to include karate as a medal sport. On August 3, 2016, the IOC agreed.
Karate’s inclusion was mainly done with an eye on engaging younger people in the Olympic movement. Karate thus joined judo and taekwondo as the third Olympics-approved sport in the martial arts category.
A Japanese legacy
Karate, which means ‘empty hand’, emerged in the Okinawa prefecture several hundred years ago and it was only apt that the sport will make its Olympics debut in the country of its origin.
“There couldn’t be a better place (than Tokyo) to begin our Olympic adventure,” said Antonio Espinos, president of the World Karate Federation. “This will be a ‘fiesta’ for the entire karate world.”
The event in Japan will be held in Nippon Budokan, an indoor venue located in Tokyo’s Kitanomaru Park and designed to host judo events at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Popularly known as the home of Japanese martial arts, Nippon Budokan had hosted the first Karate World Championships in 1970 and till date is Japan’s go-to venue for national championships of sports like judo, kendo, aikido and more.
Karate competitions and scoring
Karate in Tokyo will have two events – Kata and Kumite - for both men and women, which will see a total of 80 competitors from around the world.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has also decided to move away from the traditional norms of karate to include only certain weight categories and introduce a modified points system for the events.
“We will do our best and will have people describing what is happening,” assured Javier Escalante, Chairman of the World Karate Federation (WKF) Referee Commission.
“This is the best way to teach the public. The scoreboards will also be animated, so they understand what we're doing,” he added.
While the WKF has five weight classes, the Olympics' men's and women's Kumite event will have three weight classes each.
While the male competitors will fight in 67kg, 75kg, and over 75kg categories, the female competitors will combat in 55kg, 61kg and over 61kg.
Each Kumite fight will see karatekas competing against each other in an 8m x 8m area over three minutes.
A karateka will win points if he/she lands a proper strike - kick or punch - at designated parts of their opponent's body like head, neck, belly or back.
The first to score eight points more than their opponent or the one to finish the fight with the most points will be adjudged the winner. In the event of a tie, the karateka who scored the first point is declared the winner and in case of a scoreless fight, the winner will be decided by the judges.
In the Kumite discipline, the competitors in each weight category will advance through an elimination round to reach the semi-final, and eventually the gold medal bout.
Unlike Kumite, Kata is a performance discipline where men and women will perform a series of offensive and defensive moves popularly known as forms. There will be one kata event, and one gold medal, each for men and women.
There are 102 katas - like Heian Shodan and Nijushiho - approved by the World Karate Federation that the athletes can choose from to perform at the Olympics.
While traditional karate uses a flag system for scoring, a karateka’s Kata performance at the Olympics will be judged on a number of parameters largely around technical and athletic performance.
With seven judges observing, Kata has a different point system as well, where a karateka’s two highest and lowest scores are not considered for their final score, which is established by weighted scoring around technical and athletic performance.
After the initial ranking round, a karateka either goes to the final/gold medal round or the bronze medal round.
The qualifying process for karate
As per the Olympic qualification procedure, there will be 10 karatekas in each weight class in the Kumite discipline for both men and women. For Kata, too, there will be 10 men and 10 women competitors.
“The competition will be very tough,” reckoned reigning world champion Steven Da Costa. “We’ll all be equal and anything could happen. I don’t even know if there will be any favourites.”
Karatekas will be able to qualify for the Olympic Games primarily by two methods – rankings and qualification events.
While the official World Karate Federation rankings will see 32 athletes - 16 men and 16 women – qualify, the remaining 24 athletes - 12 men and 12 women – will have to compete for their spots based on their results at the qualification tournaments.
Each country can not have more than four men and four women each and can have a maximum of one athlete at each event.
Japan, being host country for the upcoming Games, will get eight quota places (four men and four women) for their Olympic contingent.
The dates for the remaining qualification tournaments are on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Karate at the Youth Olympics
While karate is waiting to make a dream debut at the Summer Games in Tokyo, Japan next year, it has already featured in the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Japan proved their prowess by winning four medals (one gold and three silver medals) at the Youth Games. Iran came a close second, with one gold and three bronze medals.