What Is Really Wrong With Olympic-Style Karate

By Felipe Tsoy

I have been seeing a lot of discussions online regarding the karate competitions in the recently past Olympic Games and even tried to weigh in on one or another occasion. But I realized it would be better to organize my thoughts in a full article.


When you read negative comments coming from karate practitioners, a linguistic pattern repeats itself. A differentiation between (real, true, budo) “karate” and the so-called “sport karate”. Well, here is the first problem. “Sport karate” is not really a definition of anything. It’s used in different contexts but it always means “the other people that do karate in a way I strongly disapprove”.


Even though 99% of karate practitioners around the world do it one, two or maybe three times a week, as a form of hobby and physical activity. No matter their dojo affiliation, most people will come, do whatever etiquette the dojo requires, do the physical tasks the teacher gives them and will go home feeling good after their “workout”. That’s sport in my opinion. And sport should never mean anything bad.


Some people will develop a deeper interest for the history and the values of karate, but they have always been a minority. And we all, who now talk about karate all the time, have too been one of those. If you pay attention to the story of how most Okinawan karate masters started training, it was mostly because they were small and weak and karate was known to make people stronger. Hey, that's sport!


But let’s talk about who uses the term “sport karate” with disdain. Those who know me, know that I practise mainly shotokan and goju-ryu, but also shunryu. Thus, a 20th century Japanese style, an older Okinawan style, and a modern European style. This makes me move between groups with very different views on karate.


In some Okinawan karate circles, the term “sport karate” is often used with disdain to talk about shotokan and Japanese karate. According to them, the 3K karate (kihon, kata & kumite - another derogatory term) transformed karate into something ridiculous that has nothing to do with “real” karate. Karate got rid of its central principles (e.g. chinkuchi, gamaku, atifa, kakie) to cater for young Japanese who wanted nothing but to have some fun and measure themselves against each other. This killed real karate according to them.


While it is true that karate changed substantially in Japan and lost its connections to Okinawa from the end of the WWII until the final quarter of the 20th century, this doesn’t mean it is bad at all. Funakoshi quit his post at the Tokyo University because he did not endorse his students to spar and run competitions. He believed this was not what karate was about. Of course, this was his opinion and he was entitled to it. Some of his students disagreed though, and some Japanese based their opinion on the scientific findings related to other Japanese martial arts that were able to measure improvement in their skills due to some forms of “controlled sparring” (e.g. judo and kendo).


In that sense, if you want to define “sport karate” as doing karate competition, here is the origin of it.


The other group that relentlessly talks about “sport karate” and makes sure everybody in the room knows they practise “tra-di-tio-nal karate” and not “sport karate”, even if nobody asked that question. These, usually shotokan practitioners who follow the line of the Japanese Karate Association (JKA) or one of the many groups that were created due to their internal clashes. Despite what the name might suggest, this organization and all its offshoots is not a karate association in general, but a shotokan-only one. So, if they practise a form of karate that is quite recent (last century), separated from the Okinawan tradition, and the one that introduced competitions, why do they need to call themselves “traditional” and mock others talking down to them as “sport karate”?


Sensei Scott Langley once hit a bull’s eye with a psychological analysis of the inflated egos and all their power struggles in karate: most people start with karate because of insecurities. Either because they were weak, ugly, bullied or something of the kind. And some masters, at least to a certain level, keep that insecurity even when they reach high levels in our art.


As karate changes and evolves, some people seem to feel threatened by it. Karate is not necessarily the way they know or knew anymore. And some seem to have a point to prove. Thus, “sport karate” (meaning anybody that competes in tournaments under WKF rules?) becomes the external enemy.


Let’s talk about competition. Any kind of karate competition has to be unreal. Karate can be lethal and if competitions were to allow people to use karate in its full range of options, the outcome would be very ugly. Any kind of regulation presupposes compromising aspects of our art. Thus, it doesn’t matter if it’s karate combat, full contact kyokushin, shobu ippon or WKF olympic rules. Everybody might have their own taste, but we have to agree that none of those sets of rules is a true representation of karate.


I’m not sure if it was sensei Simon Bligh or Scott Langley who once said “competition is not important unless you don’t compete”. That's incredibly precise. There is so much you learn if you compete, but we all know that karate itself doesn’t really need competition to exist. However, in my work as a self-defence instructor (totally separate from karate), I have to deal with real statistics and scenarios. And guess what? People who spar regularly develop the ability to sense an attack before it comes, simply based on being used to the unconscious cues they get. Wanna go farther? Due to the focus on speed for scoring points, an attack in WKF kumite can take 0.2s to occur. In that sense, WKF kumite develops a crucial skill for self-defence more than any other competition style in karate.


Although 99% of all people training in dojos affiliated with the WKF (the world’s largest organizatory body for karate) do not engage in competition, let alone high-level competition, let’s only talk about those who do. Who are those evil people endangering the honour and the future of karate?


Competitors train harder than all the other karate people: They learn more and they have to be abreast with the most recent scientific findings in karate. They spend much more time with karate than any of their detractors has ever done or probably ever will. They defeat their fears to go as far as they can. They let the entire world point out their mistakes. They try to become better every day. These, ladies and gentlemen, are all budo virtues. All karateka should look up to them as real life examples of what karate is about.


WKF competitors train so hard that I bet the worst kumite fighter in the Olympics would defeat the best “traditional” shobu ippon fighters even under their own rules. One after another. When Rodrigo Rojas fought at the Funakoshi Cup, that's exactly what happened. Even though he had to score 5 times to receive each point from the Japanese referees. But he did, although he never made it to the top of the top in WKF.


“Oh, but his dojo is also in the JKA”, some could say. And that’s the point. Some detractors from WKF competitions try to create a picture to themselves that “sport karate” people don’t come from anywhere. That they may fall from a tree on the mat and the only thing they know about karate is competition rules. But that’s wrong. The same way the daily training in any dojo affiliated with WKF does not differ much from any other (probably except for not badmouthing WKF competitions), all competitors have a long karate story behind them.


Peter Friedensohn, who works with top-level WKF athletes put his anger in very clear words (my translation):

“Every single high-level athlete standing on the olympic mat knows that karate is more than that. Or do you, internet heroes, believe that none of them started doing tons of kihon, kata and kumite, trained for gradings, and still carry all that in their hearts the same way you do? Or do you, big-mouthed, believe that they are the only ones who don’t know you have to adapt the “form” for realistic self-defence?”


Of course, competition is only a short phase and a little extract of karate life. But every ape knows that. And every former world-class competitor I know felt even more motivated to keep exploring all the areas of karate after they quit competition. I don’t know any former competitor who quit and thought “that's all Karate had for me. Now I'll have to switch to golf for new challenges”.


Former World Champion Christine Heinrich put a question that helped me see clearly who the real foes are in this debate (also my translation): “Are we the only discipline where you start to get your integrity questioned, as soon as you start to flirt with competitions?”. Hell yeah! For some people, if you practise for WKF style competition, this means they have the right to doubt everything karate-related in your person, including your integrity. Isn’t that sick?


My former kumite trainer, Joachim Grupp, who introduced me to WKF-style competition after a long break (last time I must had either fought “shobu sanbon” or some bare-knuckle jiyu kumite for grading), was a JKA Cup champion. His books about karate (training, kata, and kumite) are mentioned as a reference in most "traditional" shotokan dojos I know in Germany and in some abroad too. So where is that big difference? Only in people’s heads in my opinion.


I agree with what sensei Brad Berrns, from Karate Saskatchewan, said to me at a tournament in Canada: “I did shobu ippon for 20 years and it was ok. But it was not fun”. That’s where many purists would jump from their chairs to say that “budo karate” should never be fun.


Well, I could start stating that karate is not “budo” per se, because it is not a traditional Japanese martial art, but I will just focus on what most people would agree on. Budo is about martial values, respect and integrity. And most displays of the opposite, I saw in tournaments by federations that pride themselves to practise “budo” and not “sport karate”. From showing their tongues to their opponent in a bout to referee favouritism that was discussed before. Well, maybe I just had bad luck.


Some even like to argue that shobu ippon represents the real karate spirit because you fight for that only strike that will finish the fight: ikken hissatsu. Amazing! Sounds so romantic, except for the fact that even that concept has been introduced to karate much later than its Okinawan origins and, apparently, was borrowed from sword fighting.


I’ve been punched in the face in tournaments, in street fights (never started one, but as a young lad I didn’t run away from them either), and in self-defence situations (I grew up in one of the most dangerous cities in the world). It’s not fun. And like most karate practitioners in the world, I want to go to the dojo, sweat, learn something new and have fun. Not to go to work the next day with a black eye and swollen lips. You’re different from me? That’s fine. Do what is best for you. But before you make your mind about me, keep in mind that I also teach self-defence and still go no-rules with full-body armour with people I trust from time to time.


Then, we can go back to that discussion whether that is the true spirit of karate or not. Let me tell you something: I don’t know. And neither do you. And neither does anyone alive, because anybody close to that “original source” - that we don’t know - has been dead for, at least, a bunch of centuries. What we know, for sure, based on all materials we have available, is that the oldest tradition in karate has always been changing and learning from others.


I started learning karate from my dad when I was 6, and that was both shotokan and goju-ryu, but also daily lessons of karate virtues. I think that's why I get along well with people from different associations and I am usually welcome to so many dojos. I have always had a fascination to learn what other people do different in karate and why. If I visit a JKA, JKS, WTKO, ISKF, IKD, IOGKF, GKD, OGKK, JKF (and I'm still forgetting some I've trained with) dojo, I want to get the best they have to offer. I leave my differences at the door and engage in the most respectful and open attitude to learn from them. And most teachers are not interested in this kind of argument either.


It is thus important to emphasize that the World Karate Federation (WKF) is an international and democratic body (and I firmly believe that having different styles represented in your organization helps people to be open-minded about other ways of doing karate). Its board does approve changes in the rules, but it never tells its members they have to train this or that way in their own dojos. On the other hand, the bearers of the truth who continue to criticize WKF competitors do that all the time. And when they disagree, they split.


So, to finish what I have to say about these seemingly opposite views is that I have never seen any WKF competitor downtalk “traditional” karate, as I have never seen any WKF competitor disagreeing on any part of the training or the necessity to learn the basics and preserve the values we learn in karate. The other way around happens all the time though, as we see in the current debates. And people who spend a lot of energy denying legitimacy to “sport karate” and even questioning the integrity of its practitioners are often the same that force their students to learn Japanese sentences like “reigi-o omonzuru koto” and love to talk about how karate makes you a better person.


The truth is what Yasuhiro Konishi said: “Karate aims to build character, improve human behavior, and cultivate modesty; it does not, however, guarantee it.”


Unfortunately, I don’t see a future for karate in the Olympics. I asked many friends who don’t do karate to watch parts of the competition and give me their honest opinion. People expect contact, Karate Kid fights. Not tactics. Kata is beautiful like gymnastics but too complicated for laypeople. But you know what? I’m ok with that. As a karateka, I would like to see karate in the Olympics every four years and cheer for people I know, but I do have a lot of karate to do inbetween. And so do we all.


So let’s assume that 99% of what competitors do is bad or wrong. From their way of training to the techniques they perform. In that case, there would still be one thing purists and traditionalists could learn from them: Karate begins and ends with respect.