Is Karate an Olympic Sport?

Karate in the Olympics in 2020

What martial arts are in the Olympics? Is Karate in the Olympics? 

Not yet, but it’s about to be. 

Karate was set to make its debut as an Olympic sport at the 2020 Olympics. It was particularly fitting for this Japanese martial arts style since last year’s Olympics were to be held in Tokyo, Japan.

Of course, due to the small matter of a pandemic that shut the world down, the 2020 Olympics didn’t happen in 2020. It was a long road to finally include Karate in the 2020 Olympics and fans who had waited years to see it were understandably devastated.

However, the games are back on the schedule for August of 2021 and karateka the world over are holding their breath in anticipation. 

The Quest for Inclusion

Karate’s journey to inclusion in the Olympics started back in the 1970s by Jacques Delcourt, who had been appointed head of the French Karate Federation in 1961. Four years later he was instrumental in forming the European Karate Federation and became its first president, a post that he held until 1997.

He also became a member of the French Olympic Committee from 1980-1992. Unfortunately, he never got to see his dream of Karate being included in the Olympics fulfilled. He died at the age of 83 back in 2011. 

However, the work he did got the ball rolling.

Finally, in September of 2015, Karate made its way onto a shortlist of five sports being considered for inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Nearly a year later in August of 2016, karateka got the news they were hoping for — all of the sports on the shortlist, Karate included, were approved to be included in the 2020 Olympics. 

Karate will be the third Olympics martial art. Karateka will proudly join Judo and Tae Kwon Do practitioners to represent one of the world’s most popular sports in the greatest games on the planet.

is karate an olympic sport

A Fitting Debut Location

Karate was developed by the people of Okinawa, a Japanese island that has maintained a distinct culture. For centuries the island was part of the Ryukyu Dynasty and held favorable trade relations with both China and Japan, two countries that historically have not gotten along well. 

Around 1606, the Satsuma from the Japanese island Kyushu, invaded and dominated the area until 1879 when it officially became part of Japan with the Okinawa Prefecture. However, even during this time, the Okinawans had favorable trade relations with China.

Karate is based on Kung Fu and other ancient Chinese arts that were accepted on this island. This form of weaponless fighting known as Toudi at the time flourished under the heavy-handed rule of the Satsuma Samurai. 

In the 1930’s, the father of modern Karate, Funakoshi Gichin brought the art to the rest of Japan. However, Toudi (which means Chinese hand) was not an appropriate name in a country that had such a tumultuous history with China. So the name was changed to Karate (which means empty hand). You can learn more about that here.

The Olympic version of Karate will make its debut in Nippon Budokan, the venue that is popularly known as the home of Japanese martial arts. It was designed to host the 1964 Judo Olympic competition and held the first Karate World Championships in 1970. It is known as the go-to venue for all martial arts competitions in Japan.

One thing is for certain, it is a fitting place for the first Olympic Karate events to be held, so near to Karate’s birthplace. 

The Two Divisions of Karate Competition

There are two divisions of Karate competition that will be held at the Tokyo Olympics — Kumite and Kata. While very distinct from one another, each type of competition emphasizes the strengths of Karate. 

The Kumite Competition

Kumite is what is popularly known as sparring in which two contestants will go up against one another in a controlled fight. 

There are 6 Kumite events for the Olympics, 3 weight classes each for men and women. This is a deviation from the World Karate Federation (WKF), which has 5 weight classes. With 10 contestants in each weight class, there are 60 spots overall for the Kumite events. 

Kumite is judged a little differently than what spectators may be used to from seeing MMA events, boxing, or other all-out fighting events. Instead of trying to knockout or dominate their opponents, Karate fighters are more judged on their skills. If they can successfully land a technique, they are awarded points. How many points are awarded varies by the type of technique used. 

If one of the fighters scores 8 points more than the other, the fight ends and they are declared the winners. If at the end of the 3-minute round, the contestants are tied, the fighter who won the first point wins. If neither opponent has points, the judges decide the winner based on their performance during the fight. 

Matches will be held elimination style until only two competitors remain to fight the gold medal match. The Olympic games will include an animated scoreboard that will explain what is happening to educate spectators. 

The Kata Competition

Kata is a strict set of offensive and defensive movements commonly known as forms. Though it sounds boring on paper, it is far from boring to watch. The skill and precision with which the competitors perform the moves is awe-inspiring. 

If you’re curious what a Kata looks like, check out this amazing performance by the Serbian team during the WKF World Championships in Belgrade back in 2010. We seriously doubt anyone would enjoy going up against one of these ladies in a dark alley.

For the Olympics, there will be two kata events, one for men and one for women. Twenty contenders in all will be fighting for the gold medal. Currently, Spain boasts the favorites for both the men’s and women’s competitions — Sandra Sánchez and Damián Quintero. Of course, only time will tell who will walk away with the gold medal.  

Contestants can choose any of the 102 katas approved by the World Karate Federation to perform at the Olympics. 

Karate in the Olympics in 2020

It’s been a long time coming. Karateka have waited decades for their favorite sport to be included in the Olympics and were forced to wait another agonizing year because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Hopefully in just a few short months, we’ll finally get to witness the exciting debut of Karate as an Olympic sport in the postponed 2020 games! 

How dedicated of a student are you to the sport? Curious to learn more about how to become a Karate master? Many aspire but few attain this coveted title. Learn more about becoming a Karate master here.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email
Cara Koch

Cara Koch

Hello! My name is Cara, and I hail from the great state of Washington up there in the Pacific Northwest. While there, I trained for and earned my 1st degree Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do at the Bonney Lake College of Martial Arts. My interest in martial arts, however, didn’t wane. I hope you enjoy the content on The Karate Blog and are impassioned and empowered by what you read here.