Although there are a host of popular martial arts that have been practiced in one form or another around the world, only a few have been accepted into Olympic competition. At the 2020 Tokyo Games, karate will join their ranks. In light of this historical milestone, let’s take a look at the fighting arts’ history in the Olympics, and what the top karatekas will be facing next summer.
Throwing it back to 1896: the history of martial arts in the Olympics
With karate’s addition to the Tokyo Games, the total number of Olympic-sanctioned martial arts comes to eight: wrestling, javelin, fencing, archery, boxing, judo, taekwondo, and karate. Yes, even fencing and archery are considered martial arts, since technically that term can refer to any military fighting system that soldiers used in combat. Wrestling, javelin, and fencing were the first Olympic recruits back in 1896. That was when the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, Greece. In fact, the stunning Zappeion temple was used as the main fencing hall, and 122 years later, it served as the incredible site for our Olympus event. Archery first appeared in the 1900 Paris Olympic Games, followed by boxing at the 1904 Games in St. Louis, which was the first time that the Olympic Games were held outside of Europe. Judo was accepted in Tokyo in 1964, which was the last time that the international competition was hosted in that city (Japan hosted the Winter Games of 1972 in Sapporo and of 1998 in Nagano). Most recently, taekwondo became Olympic-sanctioned in the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia.
Next year, the most popular form of martial arts in the world joins the Olympic pack: Karate. Two forms of this famous fighting system will be featured in Tokyo. The first, kata, is technique-based and strictly no-contact; a karateka will perform a two or three minute routine. Kumite, on the other hand, is intended to test a karateka’s skills and abilities through freestyle fighting. Unlike kumite tournaments held under the WKF, whose weight class system is made up of five divisions for each gender, the Summer Olympics will feature just three each: -67 kg (-147 lbs), -75 kg (-165 lbs), and +75 kg (165+ lbs) for men, and -55 kg (-121 lbs), -61 kg (-134 lbs), and +61 kg (135+ lbs) for women. The matches max out at three minutes.
Judges, strikes, and scoring: racking up Olympic points
As with WKF tournaments, the Olympic kumite competition will be scored according to a point system. Points are awarded for strikes, kicks, punches, throws, and sweeps. Unlike Karate Combat, the competition will not be full contact, so aspiring champions won’t be aiming to deliver powerful knockouts. To help judges clearly show their decisions, each competitor will be randomly assigned a red or blue belt.
So who will make the cut? There are only 20 spots in the kata competition and 60 in kumite, with each pool split evenly between male/female. The lucky few will owe their ticket to Tokyo to their world ranking that is based on performance in international tournaments like the World Karate Championship and European Championships. We wish all the hopefuls the very best of luck, but will definitely have our eye on five-time world champion, Rafael Aghayev of Azerbaijan, who is currently ranked second in his weight class. Other Karate Combat contenders include Sajad Ganjzadeh and Zabiollah Poorshab of Iran, and Valerii Chobotar of Ukraine, all of which are in the +75kg weight class. Until the Olympics hit, you can watch Aghayev doing what he does best at Karate Combat: Genesis. Enjoy.