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Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture
Olympic Karate: Good for us all?

Here is an interesting interview from the brilliant “Karate by Jesse” website. Jesse interviewed Mr. Antonio Espinós (president of the World Karate Federation) on karate’s attempt to be come part of the 2020 Olympics. The full interview can be read here:


Personally, I’m not “anti-sport karate”. I believe there is more than enough space for karate to be lots of things to lots of people. I also think it’s a shame that those who train so hard in sport karate do so for very little reward or recognition. However, whether karate becomes an Olympic sport or not will have little bearing on me as I’m not involved in that side of things. Either way, I’ll just continue to do what I do. “My karate” is nothing like “Olympic karate”. They share a name, but little else. So each to their own say I! The interview, particularly one part of it, has prompted me to write this post though. This is the section I was taken aback by:

Karate by Jesse wrote:
J: I definitely see what you mean. With modern martial arts like MMA quickly climbing past Karate on the popularity ladder, we have a responsibility towards keeping the flame of our art lit. But still, many traditional people think Karate will become reduced to pure “showmanship” or “flashy acrobatics” if it becomes an Olympic sport! What is your take on this matter, and why?

AE: “Karate is so popular worldwide precisely because it has developed and spread as a sport. The martial art side of Karate has in this way benefited greatly from the sport, and it would be an activity hardly as popular if it would have been limited to the martial art aspect alone. In this way, the sport has enormously contributed to the spread of Karate – including those who want have the possibility to focus only on the practical martial art aspects.

The WKF has always tried to keep the principles of respect, rigor and other features that are promoted by the traditional martial art side intact. It is up to us to maintain, and if possible even enhance, these principles. In the WKF we do not see that the Olympic Games should bring any negative connotations in this matter.

The Olympic Games are the greatest sport event in the World. No question about it. It is a serious competition at the highest level, not some kind of special “show”. There is no need to change or adapt the rules to be part of this competition. Actually, the WKF proposal to the IOC is based on our own, current, competition format. Karate is already a spectacular enough sport, and its roots are strong enough. This will not be a concern at all.

In fact we would like to see the question “What is your biggest hope or dream about Karate in the Olympic Games?” asked to Karate world, instead of the regular “What is your biggest concern?”.”

My surprise was this bit:

“Karate is so popular worldwide precisely because it has developed and spread as a sport. The martial art side of Karate has in this way benefited greatly from the sport, and it would be an activity hardly as popular if it would have been limited to the martial art aspect alone. In this way, the sport has enormously contributed to the spread of Karate – including those who want have the possibility to focus only on the practical martial art aspects.” - Antonio Espinós

Is the sport side of karate really its biggest attraction? Is it sport that makes people go to a dojo in the first place? Does the sport really benefit those of us who focus on the "practical martial art aspects? That’s not been my experience at all.

People come to karate because the want to learn karate. The sporting side of things maybe something they get into and greatly enjoy along the way, but I believe it’s totally wrong to say that sport is the main attractor for karate as a whole.

How many people who practise karate actually compete? The vast majority do not compete because it’s not what they came to karate for. And how many instructors actually have students wishing to start training because they saw a competition? The fact is that the general public does not go to karate competitions. The audience is almost entirely made up of competitors, friends, family and club-mates i.e. those who are already have some connection to karate.

The majority of people come to karate to learn the traditional art and to learn to self-protection. The sport of karate does not represent that side of things; it therefore cannot and does not have appeal to the general public.

Of the millions who train in karate, only the tiniest of percentages will ever take part in the Olympics. Most will simply enjoy learning the traditional art for the personal benefits in can bring and (assuming it is taught correctly) so that they can protect themselves and their loved ones should the need arise.

Traditional karate can benefit the majority: Olympic karate will only ever be the preserve on the tiniest of minorities. And while some would make the argument that inclusion in the Olympics will benefit the whole of karate, I would disagree because of the fact that sport karate and traditional karate are now radically different beasts.

To me, saying Olympic karate will benefit traditional karate is a bit like saying people watching Formula 1 racing on TV will encourage them to pass their driving tests! People learn to drive because it is a useful life skill which can make life easier and more enjoyable; not because they want to be Formula 1 World Champion! Likewise, people take up karate in their millions because it is a useful skill which can both preserve and enhance life. They don’t take it up because they want Olympic gold!

My own take on the bid for Olympic recognition is that I truly hope those involved are successful for their own sake. But it has no direct impact on me either way. People won’t be queuing around the block to train at my dojo if karate gets Olympic recognition; nor will they all leave in droves if it does not.

Karate as I do it and teach it is an entirely different animal from the karate that is seeking Olympic recognition. So why try to tell me, and those like me, it is important to us that sport karate gets Olympic recognition? It’s not important to me. It’s important to them. It’s also not important to the majority of karateka – who have no involvement with sport karate – who will continue training either way.

If karate wants a future it needs to remain relevant to the masses, and it will do that through meeting the needs of the masses i.e. by providing personal challenge, enjoyment, and realistic and functional self-protection skills. Olympic recognition won’t make any difference to all but the smallest minority.

I get that for karate’s sporting and political elite Olympic recognition is a huge deal. I wish them every success in achieving something they have worked so hard for.  I do however get a little irked when they try to tell the majority that their minority interests should be the majority’s concern and try to convince those of us who focus on the "practical martial art aspects" that it is in our interests too. It has not been to date and Olympic recognition will not change the karate of the majority one iota.

I have no fears about Olympic recognition and I have no hopes or dreams about it either. It’s not what I do and it has no relevance to me. I therefore totally disagree with Antonio Espinós when he states:

“Karate is so popular worldwide precisely because it has developed and spread as a sport. The martial art side of Karate has in this way benefited greatly from the sport, and it would be an activity hardly as popular if it would have been limited to the martial art aspect alone.”

Totally not true! Most karateka don’t come to karate for the sport and there is certainly no longevity for those that do. There can be no doubt a case can be made that the influence of sport karate has taken the teeth out of the traditional art in some quarters and made it more one dimensional though. A case could therefore also be made that sport karare has diminished karate’s popularity as a whole because of its influence and that is why people are turing to things they see as more pragmatic such as MMA, etc. I’m of the view that what will truly serve karate best is a return to its roots and a greater separation between sport and tradition. To quote Mabuni:

“The karate that has been introduced to Tokyo is actually just a part of the whole. The fact that those who have learnt karate there feel it only consists of kicks & punches, and that throws & locks are only to be found in judo or jujutsu, can only be put down to a lack of understanding … Those who are thinking of the future of karate should have an open mind and strive to study the complete art”

I agree and think that karate will gain in popularity if it gets back to its more holistic roots. It will better serve the needs of the majority and we can see that happening at grass roots level. There is a reason sites like this are a popular as they are. People want to practise a more holistic, more traditional form of karate. If sport karate was all there was, we would have a tiny fraction of the totally number of karateka we have now.

As I say, I’m certainly not “anti-sport”. Those involved with it politically and as coaches and participants are welcome to do it and I hope they are successful in achieving their aims. There does however need to be a clear understanding that their aims are not the aims of the majority. It’s therefore not right, in my view, to suggest that this is in everyone’s interests. The bottom line is it is an irrelevance to the vast majority of karateka and certainly the more holistic karateka such as ourselves.

I feel what karate really needs to appeal to the masses is to follow Mabuni’s advice. That’s what most here are working towards. And you know what, a return to holistic pragmatism won’t help or hinder sport karate either way because what they do is entirely different. I’m also not for one second suggesting that those involved in sport karate should support us in achieving or aims by arguing it’s in their best interests. It’s not. What we do is an irrelevance to them and vice-versa.

Thoughts everyone?

All the best,


Dill Young
Dill Young's picture

If it does get Olympic recognition I hope it is called "SPORT KARATE"... because that is what it is. Then there will be an obvious division in it perception by the general public. Otherwise the misunderstanding`s that have existed for so long may continue into another generation and we will continue to be misunderstood by the general public. In this respect I feel that the good work that has been done over the last decade by many in search of a more traditional practical "original" approach may be undermined once again. It may not effect those of us that are already practising or moving in that direction, (because that is what we do), but may once again confuse the next wave of karate enthusiasts.  If it is clearly labelled, then hopefully it will avoid any uneccessary confusion.

Personally speaking I really dont want to be associated with all the politics and "affairs" of sport Karate either, but will leave that one for another time maybe. Best wishes to all those who are involved that are honest and hard working. Thanks.

nielmag's picture


i do agree with most of what your saying.  But didnt Karate get very poplular  on mainland Japan, especially on the university level, due to "sport" karate?  Also as far as the popularity of Karate, I would think Hollywood, in particular Bruce Lee and his movies is what caused martial arts in general to become highly popular in 70's &80's?  Thats how i got into Karate back then (Ill leave out the 25 year break I took.... ) Just like the UFC helped popularize MMA & particularly BJJ nowadays?

Lyndon's picture

The thing is, if I at 15 was looking to learn something to help me protect myself these days I'd be going to an MMA gym as it's the same type of snot and bruising reputation that karate had back in the 70s.   The majority of Karate classes now have a large proportion of kids (some places take them from 5 for goodness sake!) so yes, they come to learn karate, but when that means competing like all their schoolmates, then that's what they do.  And never underestimate the pull of a shiny bit of tin!    Kids compete without a thought, it's adults that may question why they should (for any number of reasons).     I was taught from the beginning that kumite meant get him any way you could... that kata was done with maximum effort and power (oh, and try to make it look "right" at the same time smiley) but you learned both.   You also learned (now, after exposure to people like Ian I realise a somewhat stillted version of) what the kata 'meant'.    Some of the high grades I have met are excellent karate competitors, but wouldn't know a kata if they fell over it and don't want to.   But they still teach, they still bring people in by promoting the competition aspect and the carrot of Olympic recognition.  Are they doing karate a disservice or a favour?     As for those who might get to compete.... not all boxers will fight for a world championship (although the odds have lessened in recent years) but they still train.

That it's not karate as we see it, or how we want it to be is neither here nor there.   We only have our own path to tread, so as long as we're doing OUR best then it's up to them.  We can help them along if they want our help, but if not, then so be it...  Maybe we can even learn a little something from them - who knows?

But yes, IF karate makes the Olympics and IF it looks as bad to us as the Taekwondo does I will be rightly put out when my friends think that's the same stuff as I do...     laugh    

Damien Tierney
Damien Tierney's picture

I agree totally with your opinion Iain, however I would go further and say that if karate is admitted to the Olympic Games it could have an overall detrimental effect on karate as a true martial art.

I come from Northern Ireland and also most all of my karate life has been in the sport karate field as a competitor, coach and official. Almost all of the karate in this part of the world has been based on sport karate for the past 40 years.

I started training in Wado Ryu in 1974 in Derry and in a very short time there was a vibrant karate community in and around the city with 5 or 6 large clubs with a strong competitive inter-club rivalry which was naturally channelled into kumite and kata competition. We initially trained under Sensei George Canning from Dublin and then under Shihan Richie Noblett from South Wales. We also trained with many of the world leading Wado exponents including Tatsuo Suzuki.

However the main ethos remained (and still remains) competition. I stopped teaching gradually because that type of karate becomes very repetitive and doesn't offer any opportunity to delve deeper into the art. Bunkai was peremptory and unsatisfactory and there was no effort to dig any deeper into the self defence elements contained in the katas. I include myself as part of that ethos and it has only been very recently that I have found my interest in karate re-ignited by seeing your work and the work of other applied karate practitioners like Vince Morris.

It is as if a light hs suddenly been switched on illuminating what we were missing for so long. I take heart that some of those now teaching in my hometown have started attending seminars on applied karate with one former colleague moving across completely to Kissaki Kai methods. All of the others still have a very strong sport karate emphasis.

To get back to my original point I would be concerned that acceptance into the Olympics will snuff out the very limited applied karate toehold in Northern Ireland. I realise this may be peculiar to this area because of the insular nature of our karate development and that there is a much bigger emphasis on applied karate in the UK as a whole.

If this goes ahead I can see the possibility of two completely different arts with one completely focussed on competition and the other maintaining and developing karate as a true martial art.



bowlie's picture

I think he meant that the sport side allowed it to survive years and years ago. When I look what it did to Taekwondo, and even judo, i hope it doesnt.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

nielmag wrote:
i do agree with most of what your saying.  But didnt Karate get very poplular  on mainland Japan, especially on the university level, due to "sport" karate?

 I think it would be entirely fair to say that it was the conversion of karate to a “do-system” that helped it gain popularity and spread. I’m not sure I would identify that as being one and the same as sport though. Funakoshi who was one of the key players in spreading this version of karate was clear that, “The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants”. This seems at odds with the notion of Olympic gold, but very in keeping with the do-ethos (i.e. the emphasis no development of mind and body) that made karate fit with the zeitgeist of Japan at that time. I think the personal challenge / personal development aspect is also something that contributes to karate’s popularity today. The development of sport karate came later. And while sport karate is certainly popular in some quarters, I think it is inaccurate to say that sport karate is solely responsible for karate’s polarity today. In very board terms we have the jutsu, the do, and the sport. From my perspective it is the sport that is by far and away the least popular reason why people come to karate and it is primarily the other two that draw people in. I therefore feel it is inaccurate to say that “Karate is so popular worldwide precisely because it has developed and spread as a sport”. I also think it is even more inaccurate to say, “The martial art side of Karate has in this way benefited greatly from the sport.”

nielmag wrote:
Also as far as the popularity of Karate, I would think Hollywood, in particular Bruce Lee and his movies is what caused martial arts in general to become highly popular in 70's &80's?

Totally! That’s a great point. It is possible to argue that movies did way more to popularise martial arts than their sporting offshoots. I can remember having to turn people away from my dojo doors the first time Karate Kid aired on TV in the UK! I can’t imagine the same thing happening if karate got Olympic recognition. I’ve certainly not seen a huge rise in numbers from the TKD and Judo folks I know following the recent Olympics.

Dill Young wrote:
If it does get Olympic recognition I hope it is called "SPORT KARATE"... because that is what it is. Then there will be an obvious division in it perception by the general public. Otherwise the misunderstanding’s that have existed for so long may continue into another generation and we will continue to be misunderstood by the general public.

A great point! I feel “Karate” has become a cover all term for a wide range of disparate disciplines. Sport karate and karate as many here know it, share the name “karate” but are radically different otherwise.

As I say, I think sport karate has its place and I hope it does get the recognition those involved with it so dearly want. My concern is really the sport side stating it serves the interests of all karateka and has done more for all karateka then all types of karate. The majority of karateka practise for the “do” and the “jutsu” and I think that should be recognised.

All the best,


simonb's picture


I agree with much of what you say Iain, but would add another point (or 2..). I joined a Karate club with no understanding, or concept of the existence of sport and non-sport Karate. I simply wanted to do something different to keep fit. And I suspect thats the case for a lot of people; whether its a 'sport' club or not is probably an irrelevance to them (it was to me). There maybe some who do research into what the club teaches, but thats not what I did.  

It was only after changing to different club after a year, and studying with my current Sensei that I started to learn about 'real' karate. 

Best wishes


Dod's picture

I think on one side the “Karate” name would get out there more and they say all publicity is good publicity.   In the age of internet anyone taking the time to do research could quickly become aware of the other side of karate,  not least from forums like this.

However,  my gut feeling is that it would be a backwards step considering the progress made by people like Iain.  The general public who just see it on TV  would think we just do high mawashi geris all night, and I don’t think it will result in any more practically-minded clubs and research into bunkai.

shoshinkanuk's picture

I really cannot think of a good reason for Karate (as I know it) to be an Olympic sport, 

Personally I feel sport karate people could go do a proper sport, but thats just my view on it.

For me karate isn't, shouldn't be a mass, popular activity I see no benefit in that, but I am grateful that this kind of thing made me aware of the art.

Stevenson's picture

My feeling is sport-karate as an olympic sport would be a good a thing, and would be good for karate in general. Like Dill Young, I would prefer it to be called "SPORT KARATE" to differentiate it from practical karate. I think it would raise it's profile, the awareness and interest in karate, and while it may not be the kind of karate most of us here would be ultimately interested in, nor for a lot of people brought to it who might prefer practical karate, we all come to karate for different reasons. I initially got invovled in karate to support my kids, never for a moment thinking it would come to dominate my life as it has. If Olympic karate inspires kids to give it a go, then many more people like myself might discover the door to practical karate.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Folks,

With my moderator hat on I’ve done a little editing to keep the thread on track. I hope what I’ve done is OK and please don’t hesitate to PM if you have any questions.

All the best,


Stevenson's picture

Just to add, a point that got lost with the (understandable) moderation which is relevant:

I think that a lot of karate's popularity has been driven by the involvement of kids, and kids do not necessarily have the maturity to see karate as a means of personal development, hence sports karate and tournements are a way of keeping them interested and training regularly.

It's the adults, or the kids and younger generation eventually wanting to move onto something deeper that is where karate jutsu comes in. Speaking personally, and I know of many other cases, I was brought to karate through my kids involvement and discovered what rich and rewarding world it is. If more kids are inspired to give karate a go through the exposure from the Olympics, then it stands to reason it will bring a lot more people to discover the practical path.

On the other hand, I sympathise with the concern that further encourgaing sport karate distills its traditional practical significance and reputation.

ky0han's picture

Hi everyone,

I was drawn into the world of martial arts as a child due to old eastern kung fu movies. I wanted to move and fight like all them actors there. My choosing of the art of Karate was pretty random. Two of my classmates went to train in a local Karate club and once I knew that I joined them. Both of them quit rather quick, me... still in the game :o).

I have really mixed feelings about the image of Karate when it is becoming olympic. I don't know much about Taekwondo. But what I saw on TV from the olympic bouts was rather shocking and did Taekwondo no favour, at least in my eyes but maybe I am to biased with my aquired martial knowledge. Should peoples intentions towards Karate be a result of them watching olympic Karate they easily might get a one dimensional look at the beautiful art of Karate.

I think Karate or martial arts in general was never a thing for the masses in the long run. Many people come into contact with martial arts at one point in their live, but only a few have the live time dedication to achieve the goals they strive for (whatever those goals may be).

Different people come to the clubs for different reasons to learn Karate so a really important thing is the education done by Karate teachers/instructors in the local clubs on what Karate really is or could be.

So I think Mr. Espinós words are mere politic propaganda. And I truly hope that olympic Karate will have no negative and damaging effects on Karate.

Regards Holger

mateldon's picture

Hmm, Newbie here.

I think Mr Espinos has a point, in that karate as popularly practiced today follows the sporting paradigm. By that I mean if you look at most of the major karate organisations (e.g. JKA, WIKF, Shito-Kai etc.) the karate they teach is based on karate's sporting methods, in that the emphasis is on straight punches, block counter and full extension kicks.

I honestly believe the majority of people who  identify themselves as doing 'traditional' karate are doing sport karate, just look at free-sparring at most clubs, it essentially follows WKF rules (with minor variations). Simply put if you did a double leg takedown you'd get reprimanded (to put it politely). I'll acknowledge most don't take up karate to compete, but to use an analogy, if you play football with some friends, it's not any less football or less a sport because it's not the Premiership! It's still the same dang game!

I do believe karate has been popularised by its sporting paradigm (90% of the japanese who initally travelled abroad to teach were competitors) even if people who practice it don't necessarily realise this. I also believe that the practical karate community is made up of people who were 'reared' on the sporting paradigm, realised something was missing and then started filling the gaps, so essentially they were people already doing karate before they started doing 'practical'. I honestly don't think the general public knows the differences, and that if someone starts at 'practical' rather than sport based club, it was chance rather than choice in the greatest majority of cases.

Musings aside, I don't think Olympic recognition will affect 99% of practictioners, certainly not given how splintered the competitive karate community is anyway. I don't think the olympics benefitted Judo or Taekwondo, and i don't think it will benefit karate. That said i don't think it will be to karates detriment either.


John's picture

I think the whole sport karate phenomena has more to do with context than anything else. When your self defense consists of one step sparring drills karate is becomes boring especially when kata bunkai is used in a context that is completely unrealistic for anything outside the the dojo. Unless you enjoy the sporting side of it there isn't much else unless you just enjoy doing kata.

I can tell you that after practicing the stuff on Ian's pinan bunkai dvd's and watching his youtube video's while learning more about being effective in the context of violence,  there is a much bigger more interesting world of karate out there that most people just didn't know about.

Black Tiger
Black Tiger's picture




And one I found really excellent and in its own context very good


My reason for Karate NOT to be in the olympics. Not what Karate is about.

My view is remove TKD and possibly Boxing and have a 'SINGLE' K-1 style Competition for stand-up Fighters introducing Karate, Kickboxing and Muay Thai (therefore all Stand up Striking arts would compete in one competition)


Add a SINGLE' UFC style Competition to replace Wrestling and Judo and introduce Japanese Jujitsu and Brazilian/Gracie Jiu Jitsu (therefore all Grappling arts would compete in one competition)