It’s only right that karate, a centuries-old Japanese style of martial arts, will make its Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games.
Believed to have originated on the Japanese island prefecture of Okinawa in the 1400s, karate made its way to mainland Japan in the 1920s. It started picking up steam among international audiences in the decades thereafter, including in the United States, where service members who were stationed in Japan during World War II took up an interest in the sport and helped introduce it in America.
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Like other forms of martial arts, karate centers around discipline and can be viewed as both an art form and a method of combat. The sport places an emphasis on striking an opponent with fists or feet – which is the most significant difference between karate and judo, which revolves around grappling.
While judo first became an Olympic sport in 1964, it took more than 50 years for the International Olympic Committee to vote to add karate to the mix as well. Tokyo 2020 organizers recommended the addition in 2015.
In a statement published last year by the World Karate Federation, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga hailed the upcoming Olympic debut of karate as “a unique opportunity to spread the value and traditions of Japanese martial arts to the world, through the showcase of karate as a universal sport.”
Dates: Aug. 5-7
How it works:
There are two main disciplines in karate: Kata and kumite.
In kata, the competitors – known as karatekas – perform a set of choreographed moves alone on stage, displaying various techniques and movements. They can choose which moves to perform from a list of 102 kata that have been approved by the WKF. The focus is on form.
Kumite, meanwhile, is combat-based. Two karatekas face off in an 8-by-8 meter square, trying to strike their opponents with punches or kicks. Points are also awarded for takedowns, but only if they are immediately followed by an attack.
The path to gold:
There will be eight total karate events at the Olympics, each with 10 competitors. Kumite competition will feature three weight classes per gender, and there will also be men’s and women’s kata.
Kumite is scored similar to wrestling, with karatekas earning points for clean strikes to an opponent’s torso or head, with the number of points varying by the location and type of contact. A kick to the head is worth three points, for instance, while a punch to the back or torso is worth one.
Kata, meanwhile, is judged on a variety of performative and technical elements, including speed, rhythm, balance and the way in which the moves all flow together. Because karatekas are displaying a pre-approved sequence of kicks and punches, the scoring revolves around not which moves are being shown, but how.
U.S. athlete to watch: Sakura Kokumai, kata.
The 28-year-old Kokumai was the first American karateka to book her ticket to Tokyo, and she is arguably the United States’ best chance at a medal in karate. A seven-time national champion and six-time Pan-American champion, she also won bronze at the 2012 world championships in Paris.
International athlete to watch: Ryo Kiyuna, kata, Japan.
Kiyuna has been almost unbeatable of late. The Okinawa native has won three consecutive world titles and four consecutive Asian championships in individual competition, plus a bevy of team awards at those same events. In kumite, meanwhile, keep an eye on five-time world champion Rafael Aghayev of Azerbaijan.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tokyo the appropriate host for karate's debut in Olympics 2021