Since yesterday Karate is in the Olympics. “The 129th Session of the International Olympic Committee being held in Rio de Janeiro” – quoting literally from the WKF – World Karate Federation website news center – “has decided to incorporate the sport of Karate in the programme of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games”.
Passionates and Karate enthusiasts all over the world, after countless quadrenniums of a worthless wait, immediately exploded in [detached!] comprehensible expressions of joy on the internet headlines and social media networks. Finally, there’s no more reason for that feeling of unconcealed envy, inferiority and disqualification that spontaneously grew up watching the Olympic Judo and Taekwondo competitions on the tv. Finally, Karate gains the place and the dignity it had always deserved.
This news didn’t affect me in the same way, anyway. I certainly can’t say I disliked it: nothing’s wrong with the Olympics, to me, and I actually think its spirit is something precious deserving to be preserved and disseminated even more and more. But, to me, something is wrong with the word sport when, generally speaking, they use it to define a martial art and, specifically, to mean Karate. As WKF website did.
Sport is an English word deriving from the ancient french word desport. Etymologically speaking, it stated the act of having a walk just for no reason but a recreative one. From the word desport derive also the Spanish deport and the Italian diporto, whose meanings are amusement, fun, pastime. But Karate is a Japanese Budo discipline, if you know what I mean. In its DNA, for how much you dig in, you’ll hardly find the concepts of amusement, fun and pastime. It is actually an art that incessantly asks for physical and spiritual efforts while a profound ethical and martial attitude is needed. It takes just a little spirit of observation to appreciate it. Just leaf through the Bubishi or take a glance at the Kyusho diagrams (Hironori Ohtsuka, the founder of Wado-ryu, mastered the Kyusho art) to understand that each single Karate technique aims to opponent’s defeat through the unvaried use of the so-called, even if improperly, death strikes. The study of such a discipline asks for an attitude wider, stricter and awarer than every possible sport approach.
Practising Karate means gradually to immerse oneself in a life-wide philosophy, a path conducting to self-knowledge and control. From a profound Karate knowledge derive serious responsibilities and, year after year, it is necessary that all the karatekas, with the help of their Senseis, make their shoulders larger and larger, strenghtening their body and spirit.
But in the Karate we’ll soon see in the Olympics (and that we already see in the WKF competitions) there’s nothing about that. Strikes are given not to defeat, but to gain points. They use body protections (gloves, gumshield etc.) but, even if not used, competitions would be safe anyway, thanks to the sport approach and the introduction of specific appeased techniques. That’s the point. Differences between Budo-Karate and Sport-Karate are so many and eye-catching that someone could wonder whether it’s still right to go on calling them the same way.
The first one, in each of its elements (Kihon, Kata, Kumite), teaches us balance, ground entranchment, not to raise the heels when moving, not to swing up and down, to move and strike using the whole body, to elimitate every unnecessary movement and avoiding strikes rather than blocking them, advising us against the use of choreographic but ineffective techniques like, for example, mawashigeri. The second one teaches us the exact opposite. Almost none of the basic principles of Budo-Karate is used in Sport-Karate. Why? Obviously, because this two disciplines, even if they’re called the same, have very different purposes. The first one aims to study and learn the physical-philosophical principles of fighting just to reach out the maximum effectiveness in real, no-rules street situations. The second one searches for competitive effectiveness, within a safe system managed by well-estabilished rules, just to gain points and win medals.
However, if the Olympics will be the way to better let Karate known all around the world, attracting younger people in the dojos thanks to the guaranteed publicity outcome, then we have something to be glad for.
It will depend on the way the Karate world will manage this innovation in the next months and years. And I’m not talking about IOC or World Karate Federation. I mean every single instructor and master in every single little and big dojo in the cities as well in the countryside. If they’ll let the youngsters come to Karate after seeing it at the Olympics just to gradually reroute them on the path of Budo, then this discipline’s future, even at these longitudes, is safe. Those will be the true Olympics of Karate, the real challenge: putting the Sport-Karate at the service of the Budo-Karate, the way Hironori Ohtsuka thought, and never let the contrary be. But if the Karate martial elements will be further degraded and set aside, I’m afraid we will sooner or later witness the progressive homogenization, marginalization and transformation of our beautiful art into something plain and ordinary, into a discipline not really different from anything else. In conclusion, into a mere sport.