Karate – Can the Olympic Dream Unify a Divided Sport?

Updated: Jul 10, 2018

August 4th 2016 will stand as one of the most important dates in the modern history of Karate. On this day the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that, for the first time in its long history, Karate would feature in the Olympic Games. The majority of the Karate world reacted to the announcement with jubilation while others sat back, stern-faced and tight lipped. The mixed reaction raised the question as to whether the sport can unite under the Olympic dream or whether it will once again suffer at the hands of internal divisions.

It’s incredible to think that Tokyo 2020 will be the first time that Karate is included in an Olympic Games, if not only because the sport has a huge global following. It’s estimated that there are 100 million people practising Karate around the world, that’s more than both Judo (est. 25m) and Taekwondo (est. 70m) combined. Both of these martial arts have featured consistently in the Olympic Games, so why has it taken Karate such a long time to catch up with its less popular counterparts?

Simple; Karate has been a divided sport for some time. The sport has so many different styles and each of which has its own set of standards relating to belts, rules, competition formats and judging, among others. As there are standards, disputes over the direction of the sport have regularly come to the fore. This infighting has then seen the World Karate Federation (WKF) fragment over the past few decades and the result is that we now have a number of federation’s vying for supremacy in the same space. However, the advances of breakaway organisations have been regularly rebuffed by the IOC, and the WKF remains the only international federation recognised by the regulatory body. The disparity of the sport however, has ultimately hindered Karate’s ability to secure an Olympic Games appearance… until now.

Amidst the storm, the WKF has always maintained its stance on gaining Olympic status and all the hard work seems to have paid off. In 2015, Karate was accepted as a member of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and then earlier this year the IOC announced that Karate, along with Surfing, Skateboarding, Climbing and Baseball, would feature at the 2020 Games in Tokyo. WKF President, Antonio Espinos described the decision as a “fiesta for the entire Karate world”, and his enthusiasm should be shared as inclusion in the next Olympic Games could prove to be a massive turning point for the sport.

The WKF’s Olympic push could set the ball rolling in terms of an attempt to unify the sport. One of the organisation’s stand-out statements described how they would “open doors for all karateka’s worldwide to participate in the Olympic qualification process” and that the policy “represents yet one more example of the WKF’s intention of bringing together the whole family of Karate”. If the WKF does manage to rebuild broken bridges there will be no better place than Tokyo 2020 to showcase the best of the sport. Espinos is confident that the Olympics will be the platform from which Karate can become a “major force” in international sport, however retaining their place on the roster will be a big challenge.

There’s no doubt that Karate has the numbers in terms of participation, and competitions make for an exciting spectator sport. However, it is unlikely that the IOC will again open the door to five sports for the 2024 Games, so Karate will face a fight to remain on the billing. The host cities in the running for 2024 include Los Angeles, Budapest and Paris; the latter providing Karate’s best opportunity given the popularity of the sport in France.

Without fast-forwarding too far in to the future, the WKF’s focus will very much be on the lead up to the next Olympic Games and how they will continue to bring together the global Karate community. Things have already got off to a good start as this month’s World Karate Championships included a record-breaking number of registered athletes (1,024). There’s no doubt that it is a very exciting time for the sport and all karateka’s around the world. The Olympics presents a huge opportunity and I’ve no doubt that the Karate community is going grasp it with both hands.