We are very pleased to host the following essay on Karate’s appearance in the Tokyo Olympics by Prof. Stephen Chan. This is an important topic, particularly to readers who follow the debates surrounding the inclusion and exclusion of certain sports from the games. Yet his discussion transcends the more common narrative of nationally bounded scorekeeping and instead asks what other sorts of work Karate’s Olympic moment accomplished.
Prof. Chan is a founding figure within the Martial Arts Studies community who delivered the first keynote address kicking-off what has since became our annual series of Martial Arts Studies conferences. He is an accomplished practitioner of karate, martial arts instructor and a distinguished political scientist whose writing I have always enjoyed. It is truly a pleasure to welcome him back to Kung Fu Tea.
The Politics of an Olympic Medal
by Stephen Chan
Among karate practitioners internationally the advent of their sport in the Tokyo Olympics, after years of campaigning, was eagerly awaited – but curiously not so much in Japan itself; and the reason for this was its image of violence, not necessarily in the sport itself with its elaborate (though not always successful) safety rules, but in its perceived sociological niche as a working class pursuit. Ju jutsu was, in the same stereotyping, a pursuit of Yakuza and other gangsters. Ju jutsu’s refinement as judo, alongside sumo, kendo, aikido, kyudo (archery) and above all iaido were the sports of gentlemen, or had been accepted at court, and were, moreover, (with the exception of judo) more authentically and historically Japanese. However, judo had been refined enough to pass muster, but karate was without noble pedigree and never quite lost its tag of origin in Okinawa, the most ‘backward’ of the Japanese islands.
These are generalisations to be sure but, despite all the increasing overlays of sophistication and efforts to render karate a martial art equal to the others, it probably took the modern phenomenon of manga with its heroes and villains deploying karate techniques to bring it towards public acceptance.
In Olympic terms, the success of South Korea’s tae kwon do with its development of clearly derivative techniques (despite the Korean claim to its own historical authenticity) was a goad to having, finally, its karate ancestor placed alongside it as an Olympic sport. The leverage of the previous Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, long a powerful politician and himself a karate third degree black belt – a person who rose from exactly a poor farming and working class background – helped greatly with the campaign for karate’s inclusion. Suga’s well-advertised physical fitness routine which includes 200 situps every day meant it was difficult for more sedentary politicians to gainsay him.
But karate’s inclusion in the Tokyo Olympics meant that Japan had two martial arts represented – karate and judo. South Korea had one, tae kwon do. China has none of its martial arts in the Olympics. Karate’s entry was always going to be tenuous in the terms of the numbers game as to who gets how many of which sports.
If Japan was in this sense in a weak position to insist on karate’s inclusion in the forthcoming Paris Olympics – it already had judo – then other countries were not going to act as karate’s champion. Karate is strong in France, but the international governing body, the World Karate Federation (WKF), does not command total support from the karate community in the USA; and its affiliate in the UK, the English Karate Federation (EKF) has no throw-weight in UK sporting or Olympic politics. Without the two Anglophonic giants of world sports insisting on karate continuing in the Olympics its dropping from the Paris agenda was accomplished with barely a murmur of protest from sporting establishments with quite enough already on their agendas.
Moreover, it has to be said that the Tokyo Olympics featured bouts of sometimes dubious quality and certainly enigmatic judging. As a spectator-friendly event, karate appealed to afficionados but not very many others. There was no wave afterwards of members of the public seeking to learn karate.
As for the WKF itself, it is a strange survivor of internecine struggles that have bedevilled karate since its inception as a sport with international participants. Particularly in the USA there were ‘world championships’ that featured in the 1960s and into the 70s almost entirely American entrants – some of whom went on to become movie stars, such as Chuck Norris, and who certainly featured on the covers of the karate magazines of that era – so that the glamour, and also lack of any international regulatory environment, made karate seem almost splendidly anarchic as the Bruce Lee era dawned. With the dawning precisely of that era, regulatory regularity at least became desirable if only to avoid injuries and their almost random causation.
But even now, the WKF, which went through numerous incarnations – beginning as WUKO (World Union of Karate-do Organisations) – remains faced with alternative governing bodies plying their trade. The most powerful of these is the WUKF (World Union of Karate-do Federations) which has its own impressive array of international affiliates, but few national organisations recognised by national sports councils or national Olympic committees. And there remains the unsolved problem as to how to involve Kyokushinkai karate – with its more violent full-body-contact ethos, an ethos eschewed by the WKF in its search for a relatively user-friendly and safer set of rules that would essentially remove overmuch blood from its hoped-for television audiences.
When those television audiences did not materialise, fees levied on national organisations and equipment sponsorship had to suffice. But this means the WKF has never been a rich governing body, and its sponsorship relationship with Adidas has resulted in the most competitor-unfriendly and clumsy (but compulsory) protective equipment of any combat sport in today’s pugilistic universe. It is equipment that manifestly does not suit its purpose, and the injuries and blood in evidence at the Tokyo Olympics bear witness to that. By contrast, tae kwon do was bloodless in both actual body wounds and actual excitement in combat. Finding the middle path is yet to be an accomplishment of the WKF which, as in all other Olympic sports, has developed its own hierarchy of middle-aged men wearing blazers, and these are certainly both out of touch with the requirements of today’s athletes and not seemingly greatly caring about them. While the push to get into the Olympics was moving towards success in Tokyo, all that was laid aside by the competitors. But a one-shot wonder, absent from the succeeding Paris Olympics and possibly others afterwards, will not have the clout to maintain athlete loyalty forever. And the loss of Olympic status will certainly mean the recommencement of the internecine political struggles in the karate world that were significantly responsible for its lack of Olympic inclusion in the first place. A pugilistic sport has, in this case, not developed a fully non-pugilistic approach to international cooperation and regulation.
As for the athletes, it must be said some, but not all, produced amazing performances in Tokyo. Even normally staid newspapers and media outlets were moved to admiration. The matches, however, were uneven. The kumite in the men’s -75 kg category featured a final between old antagonists, Rafael Aghayev of Azerbaijan and Luigi Busa of Italy. These two have faced each other so often, trading victories, that their Olympic match was a rehearsal of cautions gleaned from knowing each other so well. In the final of the mens +75 category, the Iranian fighter, Sajad Ganjzadeh won the gold medal, despite being kicked unconscious by Saudi Arabia’s Tareq Hamedi. The Saudi was by far the better fighter, but the rules stipulated against excessive contact – even though Ganjzadeh was leaning his head towards Hamedi’s kick as he launched his own badly-defended attack. In terms of who was, in popular perceptions, the victor it was Hamedi and non-followers of karate, tuning into the broadcasts out of interest, would have been mystified by the result.
If the men’s kumite largely disappointed – France’s Steven da Costa’s victory in the – 67 kg category being an exception, the women’s kumite was the opposite. The stylish way in which Egypt’s Feryal Ashraf fought to victory in the +61 category made her an overnight Egyptian heroine. Social media posts expressed the sentiment that she was now bigger than Liverpool football star, Mo Salah, also from Egypt.
Ashraf securing her gold medal in Tokyo 2021 Olympics.
But Ashraf, fighting in a modified, bathing-cap-style hijab, also asserted that irrefutable emblem of a nascent feminism in the middle east – the emblem and image of the fighting woman. This has been an accomplishment largely un-noticed by middle class Western feminism, but has certainly been noticed in places like Morocco, Turkey, Iran – with its powerful women’s karate team – and in Egypt itself. The fighting woman, one who manifestly can out-fight most men, cannot be denied at least some recognisable place on the social and political podiums, just as she stands on an Olympic podium.
A word on Iran. The theocratic regime of the country deemed karate acceptable for women as the traditional uniform covers the body. Once gloves, foot guards, and sports hijab have been added, almost no trace of the female body is on display. But, because karate is a combat sport, there is a distinct camaraderie that develops among those fight and suffer – and all bleed in the same way. At the World Goju Karate championships in Bucharest a few years ago (Goju is a major specialist style of karate) I witnessed my opposing coach (we were coaching Teams England and Iran) precisely and very accurately instructing the athlete fighting, and he responded very well to all the instructions. He was a male fighter. She was a female coach. And this struck me, quite apart from the quality of female fighting, that here we had a coaching hierarchy that was not gender-dependent.
In the kata at the Tokyo Olympics, the solo performance of routines derived from tradition, but largely modernised along athletic performance lines, the women’s winner Sandra Sanchez was probably the highlight of the Olympics tournament. With her Spanish compatriot, men’s silver medalist Damian Quintero, the two of them elevated the profile of karate in Spain at least. The men’s gold medal winner, Japan’s Ryo Kiyuna – born in the birthplace of karate in Okinawa – performed a storming rendition of kata reminiscent of some of the values of the founding fathers of the art – turned sport – but again with a background of modern training and nutritional techniques. They didn’t make them that big and strong in the Okinawa of old.
And Sanchez herself, in her well-produced and well-distributed training videos, certainly revealed the immense sports science that went into her own preparation. If win an Olympic medal, you train as an Olympic athlete – and that is the inescapable end of the story so far of karate’s development. The advent of karate in the Olympics means an art-turned-sport-turned-science.
But it still means the Olympics as forms of politics. Just as in social terms Ashraf’s gold medal means much for women in Egypt, so Grace Lau’s bronze medal in the women’s kata, Hong Kong’s only medal of the Games, has meant a huge amount to a Hong Kong that feels itself increasingly constricted by Beijing. Her medal was seen as a momentary breaking free, an assertion of capacity that is Hong Kong’s alone.
But the glaring feature of Olympic Karate was noticeable by way of omission – and that is the total absence of athletes from Sub-Saharan Africa. The reason for this is very simple, and that is the WKF Olympic qualifying tournaments were inaccessible, in terms of travel costs, for the majority of African athletes. Basically, and this includes the state-subsidised athletes of North Africa and even Aghayev’s Azerbaijan, the WKF has become an organisation for elite athletes from either elite countries or countries with elite facilities provided by governments who recognise an entry-point for international publicity. In the sense of a global ‘working class’, or at least a developmental ‘under class’, karate speaks as a sporting and scientific institution from the developed North.
Which means that the Olympics represent a development as far as possible away from its ‘working class’ rough-shod roots in Japan itself.
But, with future exclusion from the Olympics can the WKF maintain its hegemony? Will its rivals like the WUKF garner more adherents if its ‘world title’ is more accessible than that of the WKF? Will ‘protective’ equipment become itself finally more scientific and actually protect? And will the rules change to recognise clean harder contact?
Or will there in short be a return to the splits and bad feelings that, for so long, were a prime reason for karate not being included in the Olympics? As I intimated earlier, I do feel that will be the case.
But there are two key take-homes from the Olympics. When, very late in the day, former world kata champion Rika Usami was drafted in to coach the Japan Olympic karate team, she replaced the typical hard-man karate coach, Masao Kagawa – accused of being over-harsh on a female team member. It was the latest in a long line of sexist gaffes on the part of Japanese administrators of the Games. Kagawa’s resignation was simply one of a series. Usami’s first impulse was to increase the science in her team’s preparations.
With Sanchez’s immaculate scientific preparation, Usami and Sanchez themselves represent a new wave of female modernity at the height of publicly visible karate. And certainly so in places like Egypt and even more so in Iran – the latter not successful in these Olympics but with a women’s team that hovers at or near the top in WKF competitions. To that extent, both the Olympics and the WKF have served missions of empowerment. The men in blazers probably didn’t forsee this, but it happened anyway. And, in more ways than one, it is not the karate of the old men in the mountains and on the rough shores of Okinawa.
About the Author
Stephen Chan is a scholar of African politics at SOAS University of London’s Department of Politics and International Studies, Centre for Global Media and Communications, and Centre of African Studies. His research spanning multiple areas and disciplines centres on the political thought and practice in Africa. For years, he has taught African Political Thought, Political Thought on the Just Rebellion, Religion and World Politics, and Politics of Africa. Chan was also an international civil servant involved with several key diplomatic initiatives in Africa, helping to pioneer modern electoral observation, and continues to be seconded to diplomatic assignments today. He won the 2010 International Studies Association prize, Eminent Scholar in Global Development and broadcasts and lectures internationally.
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