The idea of martial arts being considered as sport is one that sees fierce arguments from two groups of people. Some feel that martial arts (including karate) are perfectly designed for sporting contests and events. Others, bitterly disagree and say that treating martial arts as sports interferes with the purpose of martial arts practice.
Does karate count as sport? Karate does count as a sport. There have been sporting contests and events in karate since the 1940s and the International Olympic Committee (the IOC) approved karate for use in the Olympics. The debut was schedule for the 2020 Summer Olympics.
The disadvantage, of course, is that the sporting activity can dilute the purity of martial arts and make it harder to focus on the philosophy of karate which is lost in the rush to compete.
Let’s take a look at how karate evolved, the arguments for (and against) it becoming a sport and how karate is practiced as a sport both in pure karate contests and in MMA events.
What Was Karate Designed For?
Karate comes from a practice known simply as “te” which means “hand” in Japanese. Te was invented in the Ryukyuan Kingdom which used to be a series of islands off the coast of Japan but which today has been fully absorbed into the country that is modern Japan.
The annexation of the Ryukyuan Kingdom took place in 1879 and the original art form of “te” quickly found its fans in Japan. However, at this time there was not a single style of “te” but rather many different forms which were named after the cities in which they were practiced.
A Name Change – Karate
As “te” grew in popularity, the Japanese sought to standardize the fighting style and they took much of their cues from Kung Fu in China and for a brief period the new martial art was called “Tang Hand” (which means Chinese hand).
However, this couldn’t last as the rise in Japanese militarism in the early 1900s meant that the Chinese were no longer considered “desirable” by the Japanese leadership and the name “karate” (which means “empty hand”) was decided upon instead.
Karate Was Not A Pure Martial Art
Karate was not necessarily a “martial art” in the same way that Kung Fu is a martial art, however. It appears to have been taught in Japan to help karateka to develop self-discipline and to adopt a valuable life philosophy.
Certainly, there was no expectation that a karateka would regularly use karate in combat, in fact, the opposite was true. Karate instructors taught their students that they might only use karate once or twice in their lifetimes “for real”.
This was because it was acknowledged that no matter how skilled a fighter may be, in a real fight, a better skilled opponent or even a lucky one may cut you down, permanently. It is better in karate to avoid a fight than to win one.
What’s In A Name?
Karate’s full name is, in fact, karate-do. The suffix “do” signifies that karate is designed to be a path to self-knowledge rather than just a technical fighting style.
Karate has been taught widely in Japanese schools since the 1920s and was, for a long time, part of the school curriculum in all government schools. Yet, there are no recorded “famous battles” of karateka because by this time in history – wars were fought with guns and bombs and not with hands and feet.
So, it is fair to say that maybe karate is not a martial art at all but simply a system to develop the self?
Why Shouldn’t Karate Be Seen As A Sport?
Despite the origins of karate as “not quite a martial art”, many serious proponents of karate would argue that it shouldn’t be taken lightly and there are very good reasons not to train karate as a sport.
In particular, they offer this example from sports. In most modern mixed martial arts, it is the grappling arts that hold sway. Judo, Jiu-Jitsu and the like are clearly more beneficial in a competition where your opponent is to bring your opponent down. Striking arts like Kung Fu and Karate are at a disadvantage.
Real Life Is Not A Competition Or A Game
However, there’s a good reason for this. In these events the objective is not to kill or disable your opponent but to win a fight within a strict set of rules.
In real life, when a fight comes looking for you – it won’t have these rules. If someone jumps you down a dark alleyway or around a pool table in a bar, they’re not going to call for a referee who will ensure a fair fight. They’re going to try and beat the heck out of you, and they may bring friends to help with this.
We Are What We Practice
If you fight in competitive matches on a regular basis, you’re going to lose your killer instinct. This is fine when it comes to winning prizes and plaudits. It’s what you’re expected to do. Who would venture into an MMA ring if every fight would potentially bring their death? What government would even license such a sport in the modern world?
So, fighters learn to pull punches, to limit themselves and they build this into their practices. That means their muscle memory is designed for a kind of show fighting rather than a real world scenario. When a fighter who is all about the sports gets into a real fight, they’re going to be handicapped by their instincts and this could get them seriously hurt.
Yes, those who are against martial arts being adopted as a sport aren’t being “purists,” they are genuinely concerned that sports will lead to fighters getting seriously hurt outside of the ring.
Why Should Karate Be Seen As A Sport?
In the other camp, we have another set of very reasonable arguments. Why should karate be seen as a sport?
- Because sports are fun. Want more people to study and take part in karate? Well, sporting karate will encourage them to do so. If karate were only ever used on the rare occasion that it was absolutely needed in real life, who would ever see it?
- Sporting karate encourages you to keep learning. Again, if you’re only going to use karate once or twice in your life, aren’t you likely to stop going when you reach a particular belt grading? However, if you’re competing then there are plenty of reasons to get up and go back to the dojo because the next guy you fight might just be better than you are.
- Because karate wasn’t intended as a martial art. Karate was not designed to wage war in the first place, it is a philosophically driven discipline system and what better way to display that discipline but in public contest?
- It ensures regular sparring. Many karateka do very little actual sparring because there’s no need to do it if you’re not fighting and you’re not competing. You can learn the moves, get the exercise and skip the contact. Sporting karate encourages karateka to experience the whole of their art, not just a part of it.
- It’s human nature to compete. Who doesn’t want to know how good they are at something they spend a large part of their life studying? Sports enable karateka to measure themselves effectively against other people in their discipline.
The arguments in favor of karate as a sport are at least as strong as those offered by those who are against karate as a sport.
In the end, however, the arguments are moot because karate is an official sport, whether we like it or not.
When Did Karate Become A Sport As Well As A Martial Art?
In the pre-World War II era, karate was not practiced as a sport. In 1940 there were karateka based in Tokyo who were expelled from their dojos for daring to hold sparring tournaments between each other.
After World War II, this attitude changed, and karate began to be practiced on a sporting basis around the world.
Are There Official Karate Rules For Sporting Karate?
There are official karate rules for sporting karate, but these can vary from tournament to tournament and between karate styles.
There are many different Karate style and sporting organizations including (but not limited to) the AAKF, ITKF, AOK, AKA, WKC, WUKF, NWUKO, TKL and many more.
Each organization will arrange its own competitions and they tend to be held at everything from a local level (possibly within a dojo) to the national level.
Most karate tournaments are meant to pit two opposing schools (or sometimes just two opposing styles of karate, instead) against each other. You will find that they will generally have classed based on the gender, age, weight class, and the ranks of each participant.
The World Karate Federation (WKF)
The largest official body of sporting karate is the World Karate Federation. It was only formed in 1990 but has members in 191 countries that represent 10 million karateka globally.
They organize both the Junior and Senior Karate World Championships which are held on a biannual basis. They are based in Madrid, Spain surprisingly and not in Japan
There have been several attempts to unify the organizing bodies of karate but, unfortunately, the level of compromise required appears to have made this difficult if not impossible.
However, the World Karate Federation remains the organization with the most clout in the sporting world and it is their efforts which resulted in karate being accepted as an Olympic sport.
A Brief History Of Karate and the Olympics
Jacques Delcourt of the European Karate Federation (which would later become the WKF) launched a campaign to bring karate to the Olympics back in 1972. Incredibly, it finally reached voting in 2009 and was rejected as an Olympic Sport and it was rejected again in 2013.
However, in 2016, the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee (the IOC) finally agreed to allow karate into the Olympics and it will appear for the first time in the Summer Olympics of 2020.
How Will Karate at the Olympics Work?
There will be two karate Olympic events. Kumite which will have 60 competing teams from around the world and Kata which will only accommodate 20 competing teams.
These events will be 50% male and 50% female. There will be three weight classes for each gender.
Kumite will be a full contact fighting form of karate which will be scored by judges. No fighter may strike below the belt and strength must be completely controlled. Actually hurting an opponent may result in a warning or disqualification. It is thought that knocking an opponent to the mat without attempting to strike them may also result in a warning.
Particularly severe infractions of the rules can result in a team being disqualified and not just the individual.
This is not fighting but rather a demonstration of the forms of karate. This will be scored by 5 judges and will work in a head-to-head play off between two fighters.
Due to the constraints of the Olympics, only WKF recognized forms of karate will be allowed to enter the kata competition – these are Goju-ryu, Wado-ryu, Shotokan, and Shito-ryu.
This means that many of the karate world’s biggest stars will not be able to compete in this event at the Olympics in 2020.
Does Karate Get Used In MMA?
The main sporting event in martial arts in the current era is Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and it is fair to say that karate is only mildly popular with MMA fighters.
It is not completely unrepresented at the highest level (unlike Kung Fu which never seems to make it beyond the lowest leagues) but nor is it a popular choice among most MMA fighters.
This may be because karate is very similar to Muay Thai and kickboxing both of which are well-represented in the MMA leagues.
It is also fair to say that there is a lot of emphasis placed on grappling arts such as judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in the MMA as it is fighting on the ground that wins the vast majority of fights. Karate does not lend itself particularly well to groundwork though there are certain styles of karate which include grappling and groundwork training.
Does karate count as sport? Yes. Karate has been practiced as a sport for decades and it has now also been recognized by the Olympics as a sport, which is the highest authority in the world of sport. This endorsement clearly means that karate is a sport.
However, it’s important for a karateka to understand the reasons that some people resist the idea of karate as a sport and to make their own choice as to whether to pursue karate for self-defense or as a sport.