TOKYO — If any athletes at the Olympics should be able to fight for their lives, it should be the karateka, the men and women competing in the karate tournament at the Tokyo Olympics. Karate is having its Olympic launch, partly as a nod to hosts, who practice it widely, and partly in what its practitioners hope will be a first step to regular inclusion on the quadrennial program. Never before have so many sports either made returns (baseball and softball) or debuts (skateboarding, surfing, sport climbing, 3x3 basketball) at a single Olympics. Karate is new, too, but unlike the other Olympic sporting hatchlings, it is not on the provisional list of competitions for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
The International Olympic Committee can add and subtract sports from its regular program. A host city can bring it in once, as Tokyo did with karate, though the lucky sports gain enough traction to stick around for good. Gone in 2024, baseball and softball will almost certainly be back when Los Angeles hosts the Games in 2028. Breaking, a polished way of saying breakdancing, will join the others in Paris, as the Olympics skew ever younger in pursuit of a viewing demographic that can’t afford its own televisions or laptops, but has no problem forking over allowance money for blades and boards.
So here is the dilemma: baseball and basketball were still in diapers by the time the martial arts began collecting social security. Karate’s cousins in unarmed combat techniques originated in Okinawa around 1600, when ruling samurai imposed a ban on weapons. Training masters such as Kanga "Tode" Sakugawa and Bushi Matsumura taught students in darkness and in secret, so little of karate’s original forms and progressions were codified. The sport was practiced openly at the turn of the 20th century and soon after in mainland Japan. The U.S. military learned it in Okinawa and imported it to the U.S. after World War II.
When karate made its pitch to the IOC in 2015, its selling point was simple. Estimates of worldwide practitioners vary between 50 and 100 million and more than 170 countries worldwide. But how does the practice known, albeit simplistically, for breaking boards also break new ground? Consider that Spain’s Sandra Sanchez Jaime won karate’s first Olympic gold medal on Thursday night. Sanchez will turn 40 next month, making her three times as old as Japan’s skateboard gold medalist Momiji Nishiya.
Though one of two events on the karate program entails sparring, known as kumite, Sanchez won her medal in kata, the event that showcases non-combat “forms,” much like Caeleb Dressel waving his arms in pantomime butterfly or Karsten Warholm leaping an imaginary hurdle. Some traditionalists consider it a purer form of karate than the kumite since it showcases the explosive precision of fully-extended strikes unmitigated by blocks and moving targets. The most limber Major League catcher would pull a hamstring dropping into the deep cat stance of a karateka.
On Friday, the U.S. won its first karate medal, a bronze, in men’s kata. The medal was as hard-won as the sport’s Olympic arrival. Ariel Torres Gutierrez arrived in the States with his family when he was four. The family first lived in a friend’s basement in Newark, N.J., and later moved to Hialeah, Fla., never able to afford a car, while the parents, Ariel Sr. and Andrea, worked odd jobs. (Andrea lost the use of one eye during Ariel’s birth.) The sporting building within a 15-minute walk in Hialeah could have housed a basketball gym or a swimming pool, but it happened to be a dojo, where the active child learned to punch, kick and dream.
Ariel recalls how it changed him. “Honestly, as a boy, I was not confident at all,” says Torres, 23. “Karate gave me self-esteem. I walked straighter, I spoke in complete sentences. I treated people better. I understood responsibility. I didn’t disobey my parents. When my parents told me there was something better out there, I didn’t just hear it, I felt it.”
As he improved, Ariel asked his parents if he could attend a national age-group championship in North Carolina. He understood when his father first told him there was no money for the trip, but his sister, Yusleykys, eight years his senior, made a sign for Ariel with photos of him in his gee holding trophies. The boy would wait for cars to pause at a stoplight so he could flash the sign and ask for donations to attend the tournament. Once there, he subsisted on ramen meals in the cheapest hotel room he could find and came back with titles in both kata and kumite.
Ariel heard whispers that karate might be added to the Olympic program soon and figured he might have a chance to get to Paris in 2024. When his instructor, Robert Young, told him it was in for Tokyo, but out for Paris, the teenager re-set his sights ... and his briefs. “I ran into the bathroom with a marker,” he recalls “and I wrote 2020 on my underwear.” He has worn the same pair— washed, he emphasizes—at every major tournament since. With karate on the Olympic docket, Torres conducted his first interviews and earned a spot in a Got Milk! ad. “This was a once in a lifetime chance for me,” he says.
Athletes perform separately and earn scores based on technique (70%) and athletic display (30%), with 102 different katas, each with a series of scripted, precise moves to choose from. Judges notice, power, speed, balance, rhythm, even proper breathing and eye contact. Torres’s katas in Tokyo, lasting just under four minutes, looked much like a dance, with limbs extended by javelins. His throated yells, as if he actually stepped on a javelin, could have spooked the horses at the equestrian venue across town, and the strikes, known as shuto-uke, could have sharpened a Ginsu knife.
Yet even as Torres threw his back in joy at learning his result, he knew a more nuanced task lay ahead. “That was for me and my family,” he says, “but from that moment it wasn’t about me anymore. I have to be an ambassador for our sport. I need to talk to our federation, to kids. I feel like all eyes are going to be on me. Whatever we have to do to bring this sport back to the Olympics, we may not get a chance like this again.”
Torres' story deserves a second chapter, but it will likely have to wait at least another seven years, more if the sport is not welcomed back in Los Angeles. Though the sporting list is getting longer, there is a sense that others could be cut. Modern Pentathlon has been around since 1912, when a future General named George Patton placed fifth at the Stockholm Games. Though that competition is compelling in person, even after a century, its appeal is not universal. Taekwondo could also be a replaceable combat sport and even boxing has been so soiled by the mismanagement from AIBA, its international governing body, that the veteran Olympic sport is not immune from review. With a flickering spotlight, karate needs to grab a foothold and keep away from the chopping block. Says Torres, “I want kids to have the same chance I did.”
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