This Isn't Cobra Kai: Karate Finally Makes Olympic Debut

A child sits in the Olympic rings on display outside the Olympic Stadium where the athletic events are underway at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A child sits in the Olympic rings on display outside the Olympic Stadium where the athletic events are underway at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

TOKYO (AP) — The history of karate’s journey to the Olympics would make a pretty good backstory for a martial arts movie.

Generations of determined athletes have collectively spent half a century training, studying and working toward their goal, overcoming setbacks and patiently honing their martial art for the big moment.

This epic quest finally ends Thursday when some of the brightest talents in modern karate step onto the tatami at the Nippon Budokan to begin three historic days of competition in its Olympic debut.

“Nothing will be the same for karate after Tokyo,” said Antonio Espinós, the president of the World Karate Foundation and a prime force behind its Olympic addition.

Espinós has spent his life in karate as a competitor and an executive, and the 73-year-old Spaniard radiates satisfaction from reaching this milestone in Japan. Karate is ubiquitous as a stylized cinematic tool and a recreational pursuit, yet its current competitive form is often either unfamiliar and misunderstood, or derided as boring.

Will casual sports fans like what they see from Tokyo? This won’t look exactly like the All Valley Tournament on “Cobra Kai,” and it’s definitely not a Chuck Norris movie.

Espinós is still confident true karate can captivate the world.

“Its life will change, and many millions of people will discover the sport, the martial art,” he said. “The Olympic Games, for this sport, are a unique scenario that no other opportunity can provide. I’m sure we are prepared. We have been working for many years to have this opportunity.”

Karate is already known in every corner of the globe, of course. It's had an indelible presence in film and television for decades, and thousands of dojos are thriving on city streets and in strip malls across the world.

But as one of four new Olympic sports added to the Tokyo program, the competition forms of karate will receive unprecedented mainstream attention.

The Olympic competition will be held both in kumite — competitive sparring — and in kata, a demonstration of form often compared to a gymnastics floor exercise.

Espinós and his fellow karatekas have been trying to gain Olympic recognition since 1970, which is also when the first world championships were held at the Budokan. They finally succeeded in 2016, with its importance to Japan playing a significant role in the decision.

This is a temporary addition: Karate is not on the Paris program for 2024. Espinós and other karate experts still believe their decades of work and sacrifice are about to pay off at the Budokan, and a permanent Olympic place will be their eventual reward.

“Without the Olympic Games, we would always be saying, ‘How big is karate? How good is karate?’” Espinós said. “Now millions of people will watch our sport and discover karate, and they’ll be added to our millions of supporters all over the world.”

Karate proliferated in Japan in the early 20th century after it arrived from the annexed Okinawa Islands to the far southwest. It became popular after World War II in Okinawa among the American servicemen and other Westerners stationed in the area, and it was exported around the globe.

That's when cinema became fascinated with this high-testosterone pursuit and its exotic, camera-friendly techniques like the knifehand strike — colloquially known as a karate chop.

Similarly to the way the “Rocky” movies warped the casual sports fan's perspective about the true nature of boxing, pop culture karate planted ideas of fantastical athletic feats to which no sport could measure up.

In the 1970s and beyond, kumite was a technical, patient form of combat. Norris — a Tang Soo Do (Korean martial art based on karate) champion before his film career — and other greats competed in a style that promised operatic violence, yet often yielded cautious bouts in which casual observers struggled to understand the intricacies of what they were seeing.

The sport has evolved, and kumite is more aggressive and fan-friendly now — yet it still often resembles a painful game of tag. Don’t expect Daniel LaRusso’s crane kick from “The Karate Kid,” and please forget about anything resembling a Touch of Death.

Kata is something else entirely: a contemplative, cerebral discipline with a holistic attraction for some.

Toshihisa Nagura, the WKF's general secretary, believes the coronavirus pandemic could propel this form of the sport to great heights.

“I believe the kata athletes were able to discover the significant meaning of the kata by practicing by themselves, alone,” Nagura said. “I think they were able to discover who they were as human beings, and they were given an opportunity to look inside themselves deeply. The athletes were put into this space by COVID-19, and I hope they were able to achieve a state of mind that they weren’t able to achieve normally, and hopefully they will be able to demonstrate that on the tatami this week.”

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