Liam Morgan

Life is pretty good for World Karate Federation (WKF) President Antonio Espinós at the moment.

After countless failed attempts at Olympic recognition, his sport was one of five recommended for inclusion at the Tokyo 2020 Games along with baseball/softball, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing in September, perhaps prompting huge sighs of relief within the organisation he has run for 17 years.

The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Agenda 2020 reform process, spearheaded by President Thomas Bach, may have come under some criticism for having little impact on the Olympic Movement but there can be no doubt it has provided great benefit to sports such as karate, which have often been overlooked for a spot at the Games in recent times.

It has given them the opportunity they so desperately craved to exhibit karate on the grandest stage of them all by abolishing the limit on the amount of sports which can feature at each edition of the Olympics.

With the Karate1 Premier League season, the WKF’s flagship series of competitions - the first to ever offer prize money for medallists - coming to a close here over the weekend, Espinós could be forgiven for putting his feet up, looking back on a job well done.

But he knows as well as any that it would be costly for karate to rest on its laurels.

While it would be fair to say Espinós’ sport is likely to be given the nod by the IOC at its Session in Rio de Janeiro next year, the Spaniard is fully aware that work still needs to be done if they are to achieve their ultimate aim.

Yet the fact that they have secured that all-important recommendation is testament to what they have achieved over the past year, representative of a calculated effort to increase the sport’s visibility which has ultimately paid dividends.

Karate was ultimately successful in its interviews with Tokyo 2020 but their Olympic inclusion still needs to be rubber-stamped by the IOC
Karate was ultimately successful in its interviews with Tokyo 2020 but their Olympic inclusion still needs to be rubber-stamped by the IOC ©Tokyo2020

There is surely no better place for karate to make its Olympic debut than in Tokyo, with the 2020 Games coming exactly half a century since the inaugural World Karate Championships were held in the buoyant and buzzing Japanese capital city.

The passion for the sport here is evident, with every Japanese victory at the Karate1 Premier League event greeted with the same fervour as a last-minute winner in football or a vital wicket in cricket, and there’s no doubt the whole nation is fully behind the sport’s Olympic ambition.

Amid all the excitement of the prospect of inclusion at the largest multi-sport event in the world, karate remains a sport steeped in tradition, with etiquette often as important as the competition itself.

Karatekas are penalised and can even be disqualified for forgetting to bow or wearing the uniform, known as a karategi, incorrectly and as its worldwide status looks likely to be elevated, you can be assured that karate will stick to its roots even at the Olympic Games.

I experienced this first-hand when I was stopped trying to enter the venue, which has become synonymous with martial arts in recent times, with my shoes on - something which was strictly prohibited at the event here in Okinawa - and I was, in no uncertain terms, asked to remove them.

This brought about the rather amusing scenario of me having to interview Espinós in just my socks, while the WKF President had been given a special pair of slipper-esque footwear, prompting a beaming smile from the Spaniard when we sat down to chat during the opening day of action.

Espinós himself was full of beans, clearly boosted by the decision of the Tokyo 2020 Additional Events Programme Panel and he spoke warmly throughout our lengthy discussion.

“We are very hopeful that this is the time that karate can be a part of the Olympics,” he said.

“We have been able to improve our federation over the years and have shown good parameters on social media and other things like that which the IOC gives value to and they are happy that we have been progressing.

Japan were in superb form at the season ending event in Okinawa as they claimed nine golds in a total haul of 26
Japan were in superb form at the season ending event in Okinawa as they claimed nine golds in a total haul of 26 ©Xavier Servolle/WKF

"We are confident and I don’t think it will be a problem.”

But, in spite of the beaming optimism divulged from the very top of the WKF, it would be naïve to suggest karate is without its problems. The event in Okinawa, the birthplace of the sport, provided a perfect example of this.

While the competition was run smoothly and was bereft of any controversy, the fact that the WKF were unable to sell out a relatively small venue in a karate-mad nation during the second day of finals must be a cause for concern.

We live in an age where the IOC want prospective sports to show they possess a global reach and although there are 190 National Federations in karate, swathes of empty seats at major competitions are hardly the way to demonstrate this particular factor.

A lack of funding within the sport also meant a vast number of the planet’s top karatekas stayed at home, opting not to make the long voyage to karate’s spiritual home due to sky-high travel and logistical costs, somewhat taking the gloss off the Karate1 Premier League grand finale.

It also paved the way for the host nation to dominate the medals as the home karatekas took full advantage of some of the absentees who may have provided stiff tests to their respective pursuits of glory, finishing comfortably atop the medal table with a haul of 26, which included nine golds.

As well as the two-day tournament in Okinawa highlighting a few hurdles karate must clear if it is to truly establish itself as a global sport, Espinós himself offered his own honest assessment of some of the key concerns regarding karate’s inclusion at the Games, most noticeably how they will decide which athletes and weight categories will form part of its long-awaited Olympic debut.

The WKF had originally hoped that their full compliment of kumite weight categories - five men’s and women’s - and individual kata events for both genders would be put forward, yet instead they were given just three kumite events alongside the kata competitions.

WKF President Antonio Espinos is confident karate will be given the nod for Tokyo 2020 by the IOC
WKF President Antonio Espinós is confident karate will be given the nod for Tokyo 2020 by the IOC ©WKF

As Espinós pointed out, this leaves them with somewhat of a selection headache. A new Planning Commission, who will hold their first meeting in Paris in the New Year, will be tasked with deciding how karate goes about solving a problem which is surely a welcome one though is bound to cause controversy among the sport’s traditionalists.

It also gives karate a qualification dilemma. They won’t be able to follow the example of other sports who use their respective World Championships as an opportunity for athletes to secure their Olympic berth as the event features all five weight categories for both genders, while only three will be allowed on the Olympic Programme.

Add to that the fact that the majority of the 190-strong unit of karate’s National Federations simply don’t have the money to organise specific qualification events and you can see where the problem lies.

Is Espinós concerned? Not a chance.

“Maybe if the proposal had of been four we may have looked to reduce our official categories but with three it is not possible,” he said.

“It’s a very complicated and sensitive issue - we have to try to bring the best and to also show we are universal.

“We have many ideas and now we have the working team in place, we have competent people and I am sure they will come up with a solution.”

As the Karate1 Premier League season drew to a close at the quaint venue here, my attention was drawn to the banners plastered around the facility, which read: “Karate - Proposed by Tokyo 2020.”

It served as another reminder at just how far the sport has come, but Espinós and co will be hoping there is more to come - they'll be desperate for the IOC to take the next step by rubber-stamping their participation at the Games in the Japanese capital in five years’ time at next year's Session.

For the President himself, he’ll be hoping life carries on in the same vein in 2016. Only time will tell if that is to be the case.