The Great Debate: Karate and the Olympics

By: David Lambert – International Editor

With the London 2012 Olympics being such a success, the age old debate of whether Karate should become an Olympic sport has been reignited. This article examines how Karate could enter the games, but asks the question should it?...

Following the success of the London 2012 Olympics, the usual post games topic has began to spread across the internet on discussions boards and social media sites – Should Karate-do become an Olympic sport?

Whether you believe it should be or not, most can agree that there are two main aspects of Karate today; its sports version and its tradition form. Looking deeper again, the goal and purpose of each are vastly different, with sports Karate aimed at beating a competitor and traditional Karate focusing on beating yourself.

Many practitioners around the world have successfully combined the two in the adolescent period of their Karate journey’s, by training in dojo’s with a traditional emphasis, along with participating in the odd tournament. Much the same as a sprinter trains alone to beat their personal best time, but will race against others in competition with a changed focus on achieving a medal.

Differing opinions on Karate’s place in the Olympic Games seems to stem from each individuals unique experience and instruction on the art. The story to push Karate into the Olympics is one that has been drawn out over the last two decades.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has a set of criteria for any sport to be eligible to be part of the games. In a nutshell, the activity needs to be practiced widely around the world and also needs to be overseen by a world Federation which would be in charge of creating the rules to govern competition – a duty that has now fallen to the World Karate Federation (WKF).

However, at votes in 2001 and 2005 Karate failed to qualify as an Olympic sport or even be brought up for review, even though other martial arts such as Taekwondo and Judo have made the cut.

Now with the movement ‘the K is on the way’ focusing on getting Karate competition into the Olympics by 2020, do the remaining grand masters around the world in Okinawa and Japan agree with their art attempting to enter the Olympics? And would the original creators the Olympics only martial arts, Taekwondo and Judo, approve of what their martial arts are know most widely known by today?

The answer to these most common questions can be best answered in the actions of traditional Karate Master and founder of the International Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate-do Federation (IOGKF), Sensei Morio Higaonna. At the 3rd IOGKF World Budosai which was held in Naha, Okinawa in August 1998 the International Federation held their world championship kumite tournament at the prefectural Budokan. The event was a great success and showcased some very talented fighters from around the world.

At the end of the martial arts festival a closing ceremony was held after demonstrations from some of the world’s best traditional Goju-ryu masters. During the ceremony an award was offered to Higaonna Sensei by a representative of the governing body responsible for Karate’s Olympic movement.

To the surprise of all Higaonna Sensei politely, but firmly, declined acceptance of this award and inevitable position. He explained to all involved that traditional Karate-do must never be considered as a sport and that he truly believed that if Karate was ever to enter the Olympics that it would be the death knell of the art.

Stunned silence was maintained as Higaonna Sensei spoke and resounding applause echoed when he had finished. The humble Karate master took a powerful stance against what he believed would be the movement to undo everything he and so many other traditional Karate instructors had dedicated so much time towards protecting. Since this episode, IOGKF will not hold another world championship in Okinawa as thanks to Higaonna Sensei’s wisdom, Okinawa - the birthplace of Karate and the headquarters of his International following - will be forever protected from a sports martial arts influence.

It is widely regarded that no one else understands Karate better than Sensei Morio Higaonna and other traditional Masters around Okinawa and Japan, and they have made their opinion on the subject clear. The question now remains, does Karate have enough practitioners that understand the reasoning of our most senior of Masters and who will protect traditional Karate from a sporting future?