Is there a Future for Olympic Karate?

Miroslav Imbrišević
Formerly of Heythrop College, University of London


A Strange Ending

The final bout in the men’s Karate (over-75 kg) in Tokyo ended with a bang – when Sajad Ganjzadeh’s head hit the tatami (mat). His opponent in the battle for gold, Tareg Hamedi (Saudi Arabia), delivered a kick to his head, which knocked Ganjzadeh (Iran) out cold.

This match also ended in controversy, perhaps not within the Karate community, but certainly for Olympic audiences worldwide. Hamedi was disqualified for using excessive force and the gold medal was awarded to the unconscious fighter.

For the sake of fairness, I should disclose that I trained in Taekwondo, not in Karate. So, my observations are from the point of view of a fellow martial artist.

The rules state that a Karate fighter must control the force of their technique; there should only be light (‘touch’) contact in order to avoid serious injuries. Non-accidental application of excessive force can lead to disqualification, and this is what happened in the fight between Ganjzadeh and Hamedi.

After watching the footage several times, I have doubts about the disqualification. Ganjzadeh launched himself into a reverse punch (Gyaku-zuki) and Hamedi countered with a (front-foot) turning kick. The Iranian made two mistakes: 1. he adopted a very low stance, thus exposing his head to attack, when delivering his left-handed punch (but note that the low stance is part of traditional Karate technique, when delivering a blow to the body), and 2. he failed to protect/block the right side of his face. Because of his low stance, Hamedi’s counter kick hit Ganjzadeh’s head, but it would normally have hit the upper body. And I suspect it was originally aimed at the body. In my view, the knock-out was accidental.

Hamedi had been leading 4-1 before he knocked out his opponent. If we accept that the KO was accidental, and consider that he was in the lead, then Hamedi should have been awarded the gold medal.

Foto: Harry How / Getty Images AsiaPac

The current rules for Olympic Karate appear to confirm my view that the referees made the wrong decision – but for different reasons. Article 8 of the WKF rules explains prohibited behaviour. Among the Category 2 offences is the following: “3. Self-endangerment by indulging in behaviour, which exposes the Competitor to injury by the opponent, or failing to take adequate measures for self-protection, (Mubobi).”

In the Explanation section of Category 2 offences, we find that the reverse punch (Gyaku-zuki), the technique used by the knocked-out fighter, gets explicit treatment:

XVIII: An example of MUBOBI is the instance in which the Competitor launches a committed attack without regard for personal safety. Some Competitors throw themselves into a long reverse-punch, and are unable to block a counter. Such open attacks constitute an act of Mubobi and cannot score. (…) Should the offender receive an excessive contact and/or sustain an injury the Referee will issue a Category 2 warning or penalty and decline to give a penalty to the opponent.

My reading of the rules is that Ganjzadeh attack constituted Mubobi (self-endangerment), so Hamedi should not have been penalised.

Karate’s Olympic Future

As a concession to the host country, Karate had its debut at the Tokyo Olympics, but it is not going to be included in the Paris games (2024). Nevertheless, World Karate Federation (WKF) President Antonio Espinós wants the sport to become a permanent part of the Olympic programme. After the end of all Karate action in Tokyo, Espinós declared: “The same as Karate needs the Olympic Games, the Olympic Games needs Karate.” He defended the decision to award the gold medal to Ganjzadeh: “What happened yesterday was not the outcome we would have preferred.” Espinós explained: “It is a contact sport with very clear rules with the protection of the health and safety of the athlete.”

I doubt that the IOC will agree with Espinós, for several reasons. There is already a martial art with Japanese roots in the Olympics: Judo. If we had a second discipline from Japan, other countries might object to this. Why not Wushu, a Chinese martial art? Why not Mongolian wrestling?

Another problem is that Olympic Karate is still bound to the purity[i] of its techniques (e.g. taking a low stance, when delivering a reverse punch). Some techniques need to be adapted for competition purposes – as has happened in Olympic Taekwondo.

For spectators and martial artists from other disciplines, the decision to award a gold medal to a knocked-out fighter looked odd. In most other martial competitions, the use of full force is not penalised – it is encouraged (think of MMA or boxing). In Taekwondo the sensors on the protective gear will not register, unless a blow is delivered with sufficient force. When deciding on inclusion of a new sport, the IOC will consider the appeal of the sport for spectators, and here Karate comes up short. Critics have likened Karate competition to a game of tag. To most viewers it looks like a light sparring session, something that is part of daily training in the dojo, rather than a competitive fight. But if the WKF allowed full force and introduced head-guards, body protectors and sensors, Olympic Karate might look very similar to the existing Olympic sport of Taekwondo, and the IOC would presumably not be keen on its inclusion. So it might be better to avoid all the protective body equipment and make the action more attractive instead.

In other martial sports we witness more or less continuous fighting, but in Olympic Karate the referee interrupts the fight after each successful score and awards the respective points. I suspect, this is again a remnant from traditional Karate teaching: one good blow can decide/end the fight. But the light contact ethos in Olympic competition makes such interruptions unnecessary. We could have continuous fighting, and this would increase the appeal for viewers. Unless the WKF takes any of this into account, I suspect it is ‘sayonara’ for Olympic Karate.

Copyright @ Miroslav Imbrišević 2021

Note

[i] Karate in Tokyo had two components: 1. Kumite: sparring; 2. Kata: demonstrating pre-arranged defensive and attacking moves, normally performed individually (see: https://www.eurosport.com/karate/tokyo-2020/2021/karate-women-s-kata-final-tokyo-2020-olympic-highlights_vid1522546/video.shtml). The inclusion of Kata confirms how much the WKF is wedded to the traditions of Karate, which is commendable. But for the majority of the audience Kata displays would have seemed boring and the average viewer would not have the knowledge to judge the performance. An exception is this young fighter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65QCHZDXKmA. More info about Karate and scoring: https://wayofmartialarts.com/how-is-karate-scored/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZJQ4PBHIZc.
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