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:
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.
All the best,