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EXPLAINER: Karate finally returns to its roots to debut at the Olympics. Here’s what you need to know

By Hannah Mallorca Published Jul 28, 2021 7:56 pm

Karate is a century-old martial art that was born in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. It is a form of discipline that’s practiced by generations as self-defense, a combat sport, or art. 

In 2015, the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee recommended including karate as a medal sport to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The IOC formally introduced the ancient discipline on Aug. 3, 2016. 

There’s a catch. While karate makes its first appearance in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, it might also be the last. The new IOC guidelines allow organizing committees to add provisional sports for the events they will host. As a result, it will not be included in the 2024 Paris Olympics

What is karate?

Karate is an ancient discipline that focuses on striking, kicking, and defensive blocking using the arms and legs. Traditional karate emphasizes the martial art’s self-development, while modern Japanese karate embraces its psychological benefits.

Olympic Karate will be divided into two events: Kata (form) and Kumite (sparring).

In Kata, the competitors—or karatekas—focus on the set of choreographed defensive and offensive movements. Athletes are free to perform from a list of 102 Kata approved by the World Karate Federation.

A Kata competition in the Olympics will be judged based on the use of performative and technical elements. The important factors for scoring include rhythm, speed, balance, and how the movements come together. 

Olympic karatekas will be scored based on how the movements will be performed since it’s based on a pre-approved series of styles. Points are based on two factors: stance, technique, transitional movement, correct breathing, focus, timing, and conformance (70 percent) and speed, strength and balance (30 percent)

On the other hand, Kumite emphasizes the use of defensive and offensive movements towards the opponent. Karatekas earn points by performing clean strikes to a fellow competitor’s head or torso.

The number of points depends on the location and degree of contact. For example, a punch to the back or torso is worth one point. A kick to the head is worth three points

Karatekas to look out for

Sports fans can expect 80 karatekas from 36 countries to compete on the Olympic stage. Here are the early favorites for the Kata division:

Sandra Sanchez of Spain is one of the early favorites in the Kata division. The 31-year-old athlete boasts an impressive record of 35 consecutive medals from January 2014 to February 2020.

One of Sanchez’s rivals for an Olympic gold medal is Japan’s Kiyou Shimizu. The athlete is a two-time gold medalist at the Asian Games and a two-time gold medalist at the World Karate Championships.

Another strong competitor in the Kata division is 28-year-old Sakura Kokumai of the United States. She is a six-time Pan American champion and a seven-time national champion. 

The Kumite division boasts an impressive lineup of athletes as well. Here are the following karatekas to watch out for:

Anzhelika Terliuga of Ukraine is one of the strong candidates for a podium finish. The athlete is dubbed as one of “karate’s rising stars” in Europe after being crowned as one of the winners in the 2017 Karate 1 Premier League.

France’s Steven Da Costa is one of the early favorites in the men’s Kumite division. He is a gold medalist in the men's 67 kg event at the 2018 World Karate Championships.

Rafael Aghayev of Azerbaijan is one of Da Costa’s strongest opponents for a gold medal in the men’s Kumite division. The athlete is a five-time World Champion and an 11-time karate champion in Europe. 

The Olympic athletes will compete for eight gold medals, including one each for men’s and women’s Kata divisions. The Kumite division is divided into three weight categories each for women (-55 kg, -61 kg, and +61 kg) and men (-67 kg, -75 kg, and + 75 kg).

The karate event will take place at Nippon Budokan from Aug. 5 to 7.