That was it? That was why we put up with scheming, conniving and tantrum throwing for four decades? Karate’s first Olympic medal is awarded to a “winner” who wound up flat on his back, semiconscious because his opponent kicked too hard. Sometimes irony gets served up in excess.
If you ever had a goal and started working feverishly on it, obsessing over it until the goal became more important than the reasons you had to take up the task in the beginning, you have an idea of how Olympic karate evolved. The original reason for working to make karate an Olympic sport was it supposedly would make karate more popular, which would result in more paying customers coming to every dojo — and lead to elevated status for the karate leaders who were dedicated to the task.
The problems were almost immediate. Unlike judo, which is recognized as one form of budo under the auspices of the Kodokan in Tokyo, karate is not a singular art. From its beginnings in Okinawa, it was always varied; we refer to these loosely as “styles.”
Some affix the term ryu to the name of their styles of karate in imitation of classical Japanese disciplines. But karate was practiced on an even smaller scale than those disciplines. Teachers passed on their particular interpretations. There were regional similarities in, for example, Naha-te and Shuri-te, but even within those, many different schools existed.
Karate was introduced to Japan by a number of teachers, and by the 1920s, several of these styles were formally established, including shotokan, goju-ryu, uechi-ryu and others. After World War II, though, these individual methods became even more disparate. By the 1960s, there were hundreds of karate teachers and dojo, some nationally known and some operating in tiny spaces in a yard or in a factory’s storage room with a handful of students.
Even among the larger systems, there was enough variety (read: factionalism) that no one group could make a reasonable claim to represent Japanese karate — not that they didn’t try.
The Federation of All-Japan Karate-Do Organizations, the World Union of Karate-Do Organizations, the World Karate Federation and others have advanced the idea that Olympic karate would be wonderful and that they would be perfect to lead it. It was a comic display of ego and power grabbing. More than once, governing bodies related to the Olympics threw up their hands in disgust at all the shenanigans. In Japan, lawsuits were filed by different groups.
I have no idea how karate finally made it into the Tokyo Games in 2020 — or 2021. There seems to be some confusion over this, which is, again, ironic. It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone who’s serious about the art would much care. There are a number of reasons for this.
We often refer to karate styles, as I noted, but that’s a poor way to describe the differences in karate groups. The differences exist for a reason. The approaches to karate — physically, technically and strategically — are unique to the different forms. Practitioners who are superficial in their pursuit of karate tend to overlook or minimize this. They explain that shotokan people will punch and kick from a middle distance or that goju-ryu people grapple more and tend to fight close in. In many cases, however, they may not understand why these differences exist.
What fundamentally makes a specific system of combat is a coherent strategy, a way of entering into conflict and addressing it. To acquire the full potential of the system means immersing oneself in its strategy and mindset. The shito-ryu practitioner organizes his body in a way that’s distinct from the uechi-ryu exponent. These distinctions are what characterize individual systems. Integrating them into one’s self is a challenging, time-consuming process.
Here’s an example: An Army Ranger looks at conflict differently than does a police officer. The Ranger’s priority is to eliminate an enemy. The cop’s priority is to neutralize a threat and keep people safe. If the officer’s mentality surfaces on the battlefield, he’s probably going to die. If a police officer reacts to any threat like a Ranger in a firefight would, there will be some unfortunate consequences for society. The Ranger and the cop go into the world with different priorities, and if they’re well-trained, they adapt their mentality and techniques to those priorities.
If you understand this, you see the hopelessness of mixing styles of karate. That, however, is exactly what happened as karate advanced to the status of Olympic sport. Inclusiveness was necessary; no one karate system was big enough or influential enough to control everything. As a result, karate became a mishmash. Now, the goal of the practitioner is not to acquire a coherent system that will allow him or her to meet conflict in an unrestrained way. On the contrary, Olympic karate’s goal is to score points. Practitioners aren’t working to defeat an opponent; they’re trying to impress a judge. This obviously sets up a dilemma.
Imagine a boxing match refereed by wrestling judges. How successful would that be? It’s an exaggeration, but it expresses the same problem, one that’s compounded by the fact that, unlike in boxing or wrestling, actual contact is minimized in karate matches. It’s possible to win a championship without ever making contact with an opponent. This always has been an impediment to the idea of “sport karate,” and all manner of contrivances have been advanced to overcome it. Mandatory protective gear, target limitations and other rules have been instituted.
Karate is not the only combat art that’s dealt with such modifications when being worked into a sport. Think a fencing match would look the same if you removed the fencers’ masks? How many techniques would instantly be abandoned if they had a mortal fear of taking the sword tip in the eye? To popularize the art, accommodations were made.
One could argue that the accommodations are worth it when weighed against the advantages they provide. When you ask just what those advantages are, however, the promises don’t always seem worthwhile. There likely will be no big uptick in the number of new karate students as a result of what viewers watched in the Olympics. On the contrary, some probably were left confused: “Wait, the guy who got knocked out won? The loser lost because he kicked too hard? I thought kicking hard was one of the major points of karate.”
But it’s worse than that. Karate kata in the Olympics wound up being a demonstration of generic kick-and-punch sequences. Again, to accommodate as many practitioners as possible, the range of allowed kata was broadened so the forms of the four systems of the WKF — goju-ryu, shito-ryu, shotokan and wado-ryu — were allowed. While that seems inclusive, how is a person to judge the quality of a kata from a system in which he or she may have no experience? How does the judge know what to look for?
You might insist that certain fundamentals are universal in kata. Absolutely. A skilled martial artist can assess many elements that distinguish a good execution of a kata from a poor one: the expansion and contraction of the body at certain moments, the transmission of power without any unnecessary impediment, the positioning between techniques and so on. These are all important.
Invisible, though, to the person who lacks experience in a particular system are many of the details that give value and meaning to the kata. You and I might be able to say a dish tastes good, but without an understanding of its ingredients, we couldn’t make an accurate judgment of its nutritional value. A kata is no different. I can say it looks good from my perspective, but I’m not a senior exponent of the system that uses it. There will be movements I won’t understand: the timing, the technique flow, the pauses. There are movements that are meant to be slow, steady and overpowering, as well as others that are meant to be fast and light. Does the judge know which is which?
For Olympic karate, the answer to this problem was largely to pretend these distinctions did not exist or were not important. If a kata looked good, that was enough. And the individual schools and karate organizations were willing to go along with this. They allowed judges to determine the quality of a kata even though those judges may have no advanced experience in the particular art.
Compromise is not, in itself, a detriment. In fact, karate has compromised many times in its history. From an isolated, village-centered tradition taught in yards and forest clearings, Okinawan karate was formalized and introduced as a mass exercise for schoolchildren. That’s an enormous compromise.
In 1905 karate master Itosu Anko began teaching simplified kata to those school-children. He simplified kata and removed effective combat techniques. The concessions were radical, but they changed the course of karate and probably had an influence on the fact that so many people practice karate today.
So the question is not about compromise. It’s about whether the value of what comes from those compromises is worth it. This is a discussion that should be going on in every karate dojo: What is our art all about? What are the goals? Are there superficial goals as well as goals that have a deeper, more profound meaning? If so, how much weight do we give to each of them?
There will be, perhaps, different answers for different dojo, different teachers, different practitioners. I hope for at least some that one clue to those answers can be found in the image of a gold-medal winner flat on his back.
Dave Lowry has written Karate Way since 1986. For more information about his articles and books, visit blackbeltmag.com and type his name into the search box.