This isn’t Cobra Kai: Karate finally makes Olympic debut

Aug 3, 2021, 12:32 PM | Updated: Aug 4, 2021, 2:03 am

TOKYO (AP) — The history of karate’s journey to the Olympics would make a pretty good backstory for a martial arts movie.

Generations of determined athletes have collectively spent half a century training, studying and working toward their goal, overcoming setbacks and patiently honing their martial art for the big moment.

This epic quest finally ends Thursday when some of the brightest talents in modern karate step onto the tatami at the Nippon Budokan to begin three historic days of competition in its Olympic debut.

“Nothing will be the same for karate after Tokyo,” said Antonio Espinós, the president of the World Karate Foundation and a prime force behind its Olympic addition.

Espinós has spent his life in karate as a competitor and an executive, and the 73-year-old Spaniard radiates satisfaction from reaching this milestone in Japan. Karate is ubiquitous as a stylized cinematic tool and a recreational pursuit, yet its current competitive form is often either unfamiliar and misunderstood, or derided as boring.

Will casual sports fans like what they see from Tokyo? This won’t look exactly like the All Valley Tournament on “Cobra Kai,” and it’s definitely not a Chuck Norris movie.

Espinós is still confident true karate can captivate the world.

“Its life will change, and many millions of people will discover the sport, the martial art,” he said. “The Olympic Games, for this sport, are a unique scenario that no other opportunity can provide. I’m sure we are prepared. We have been working for many years to have this opportunity.”

Karate is already known in every corner of the globe, of course. It’s had an indelible presence in film and television for decades, and thousands of dojos are thriving on city streets and in strip malls across the world.

But as one of four new Olympic sports added to the Tokyo program, the competition forms of karate will receive unprecedented mainstream attention.

The Olympic competition will be held both in kumite — competitive sparring — and in kata, a demonstration of form often compared to a gymnastics floor exercise.

Espinós and his fellow karatekas have been trying to gain Olympic recognition since 1970, which is also when the first world championships were held at the Budokan. They finally succeeded in 2016, with its importance to Japan playing a significant role in the decision.

This is a temporary addition: Karate is not on the Paris program for 2024. Espinós and other karate experts still believe their decades of work and sacrifice are about to pay off at the Budokan, and a permanent Olympic place will be their eventual reward.

“Without the Olympic Games, we would always be saying, ‘How big is karate? How good is karate?'” Espinós said. “Now millions of people will watch our sport and discover karate, and they’ll be added to our millions of supporters all over the world.”

Karate proliferated in Japan in the early 20th century after it arrived from the annexed Okinawa Islands to the far southwest. It became popular after World War II in Okinawa among the American servicemen and other Westerners stationed in the area, and it was exported around the globe.

That’s when cinema became fascinated with this high-testosterone pursuit and its exotic, camera-friendly techniques like the knifehand strike — colloquially known as a karate chop.

Similarly to the way the “Rocky” movies warped the casual sports fan’s perspective about the true nature of boxing, pop culture karate planted ideas of fantastical athletic feats to which no sport could measure up.

In the 1970s and beyond, kumite was a technical, patient form of combat. Norris — a Tang Soo Do (Korean martial art based on karate) champion before his film career — and other greats competed in a style that promised operatic violence, yet often yielded cautious bouts in which casual observers struggled to understand the intricacies of what they were seeing.

The sport has evolved, and kumite is more aggressive and fan-friendly now — yet it still often resembles a painful game of tag. Don’t expect Daniel LaRusso’s crane kick from “The Karate Kid,” and please forget about anything resembling a Touch of Death.

Kata is something else entirely: a contemplative, cerebral discipline with a holistic attraction for some.

Toshihisa Nagura, the WKF’s general secretary, believes the coronavirus pandemic could propel this form of the sport to great heights.

“I believe the kata athletes were able to discover the significant meaning of the kata by practicing by themselves, alone,” Nagura said. “I think they were able to discover who they were as human beings, and they were given an opportunity to look inside themselves deeply. The athletes were put into this space by COVID-19, and I hope they were able to achieve a state of mind that they weren’t able to achieve normally, and hopefully they will be able to demonstrate that on the tatami this week.”


More AP Olympics: and

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Spain's players react after the penalty shootout at the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between ...
Associated Press

Young Spain squad and its ‘tiki-taka’ stumble at World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Spain lost to Morocco 3-0 in a penalty shootout in the round of 16 at the World Cup on Tuesday, failing to make it to the quarterfinals for the third straight time since winning its last world title in South Africa in 2010. La Roja also lost in a shootout in […]
1 day ago
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo walks during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Portugal a...
Associated Press

Ronaldo loses Portugal spot to sully World Cup journey

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — So, the dream is still alive for Cristiano Ronaldo. Soccer’s most prolific modern-day scorer might yet, at the age of 37 and probably playing in his last World Cup, claim the one major title to elude him in a career like no other. It didn’t quite feel that way, though, as […]
1 day ago
Switzerland's midfielder Granit Xhaka, right, and Switzerland's midfielder Denis Zakaria, left, rea...
Associated Press

Switzerland falls again to first World Cup knockout punch

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Switzerland exited the World Cup at the round of 16 stage, just as it usually does in the modern era. A 6-1 rout by Portugal on Tuesday left little space for feeling that progress was made, even if the squad was hit by a bout of sickness in Qatar. Switzerland’s quest […]
1 day ago
Morocco's head coach Walid Regragui is thrown in the air at the end of the World Cup round of 16 so...
Associated Press

The next World Cup will jump to 48 teams. Is bigger better?

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — The next World Cup will be the biggest ever after world soccer body FIFA took the leap from a 32-team field to 48 teams in 2026. It means more of soccer’s so-called “little teams” that didn’t make it to Qatar will be given a chance of a lifetime when the tournament […]
1 day ago
A sunken vehicle sit in the Mesaieed sea-line at the GMC dive site in Mesaieed, Qatar Wednesday, No...
Associated Press

AP PHOTOS: World Cup fans explore Qatar’s artificial reefs

MESAIEED, Qatar (AP) — Thirty feet (9 meters) deep into the waters of the Persian Gulf, angel fish swim in and out of rusted trucks and SUVs. Plastic bags and water bottles, blown in from the nearby shoreline, float across the ocean floor. World Cup fans in Qatar hoping to see some of the Gulf’s […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Cone scores 24 as Northern Arizona takes down Pacific 73-69

STOCKTON, Calif. (AP) — Jalen Cole had 24 points in Northern Arizona’s 73-69 victory against Pacific on Tuesday. Cone shot 6 for 12 (3 for 4 from 3-point range) and 9 of 10 from the free-throw line for the Lumberjacks (4-7). Xavier Fuller scored 18 points and added 10 rebounds. Nik Mains recorded nine points […]
1 day ago
This isn’t Cobra Kai: Karate finally makes Olympic debut