TOKYO — Every city that hosts the Olympics pushes for events popular in its country to be included in the program, and Tokyo is no different. The Japanese organizers successfully lobbied for baseball to return after an absence of a dozen years and for surfing to make its debut.
The International Olympic Committee also signed off on the Japanese organizers’ request to include karate as a medal sport, an upgrade from the cameo it made as a demonstration sport at the 1964 Tokyo Games.
Thanks in part to Hollywood movies, karate is perhaps the best known of the martial arts. But it forms the basis of numerous other martial arts, including taekwondo, and has a wide following across the globe.
But it has its roots in the southern Japanese islands of Okinawa, where it was developed centuries ago. It is fitting, then, that one of the gold medal favorites in the three-day tournament that begins Thursday is Ryo Kiyuna, an Okinawan. A three-time individual world champion, Kiyuna will compete in the men’s kata portion on Friday, and if he meets expectations, he will be the first Okinawan to win an Olympic gold medal.
“Since karate has finally been selected as an official event at the Tokyo Olympics, I would like to show the world what karate is all about, both as a representative of Japan and as a representative of Okinawa,” he told Jiji Press last year.
Casual observers of the sport are probably familiar with kumite, where two fighters face off and try to hit and kick their opponents to score points.
Kata, by contrast, includes the building blocks of karate performed against an imaginary opponent, traditional aspects of the martial art that purists relish. In kata, athletes perform alone, demonstrating a series of offensive and defensive moves. Karateka choose from among 102 katas, or techniques, that are approved by the World Karate Federation.
The seven judges base 70 percent of a score on technical proficiency, which includes focus, breathing, timing and stances. The other 30 percent is based on athletics, including strength and speed.
Kiyuna has dominated the kata world in recent years, the only karateka to receive a perfect score, something he did in 2019. Now 31, he began practicing karate at 5, inspired to join a friend from kindergarten. He started winning competitions, and studied under Tsuguo Sakumoto, a karate master from Okinawa. By 2014, Kiyuna overtook his biggest rival, Antonio Díaz of Venezuela. His main competition at the Tokyo Games is Damián Quintero of Spain, who was runner-up to Kiyuna at the past two world championships.
According to Masahiro Ide, who runs a karate fan newsletter, Kiyuna has exceptional speed, sharpness and strength and accurate techniques.
“His moves are so strong that the judges can feel his power just from his appearance, which allows him to get high scores,” said Ide, who expects Kiyuna to win a gold medal. “He is also good at pulling power from within himself.”
Unfortunately for karate fans, the sport will not be on the program at the Paris Games in 2024. Supporters of karate hoped its inclusion in Tokyo would boost the sport’s popularity much the way taekwondo benefited from being added to the Olympic program at the Sydney Games in 2000.
For now, the sport will get plenty of exposure in Tokyo this week, with Kiyuna and Okinawa as two of the main attractions.
“The Japanese feel that karate is theirs, and they want to regain dominance,” said Sherman Nelson Jr., a karate analyst for NBC Sports. “The world caught up. The sport is a melting pot. Everyone has to adapt.”