A Closer Look: Karate struggles to gain Olympic acceptance but they will continue to fight on

Karate debuted at Tokyo 2020 Games but has been dropped by Paris 2024 program for unspecified reasons.

Four sports made their official debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games: karate, skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing. Hopes and dreams became reality as athletes got to showcase their skills on the biggest of stages.

In the case of skateboarding, history was made as Momiji Nishiya from the host nation of Japan won a gold medal in women’s street skateboarding.

Nishiya was 13 years old when she won, the second youngest (by two months) gold medal winner in Olympic history.

Karate has been aiming for Olympic inclusion since the 1970s and Tokyo seemed the perfect time and place to make its debut, given Japan’s love of martial arts. The host country rose to the occasion and claimed seven medals, four of them gold.

By any accounts the four debutant sports enjoyed a triumphant time in Tokyo. Medals were handed out, smiles abounded, tears flowed and hopes and dreams were fulfilled.

But only three of the four have been invited to the dance in Paris three years from now. Karate will not be included in the Paris 2024 program.

Antonio Espinos, the president of the World Karate Federation (WKF), is baffled by the decision and, true to his sport, is not going home without a fight.

“We (the WKF) think the decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Organizing Committee of the Paris 2024 Games is unfair, arbitrary and far from the Olympic spirit.”

The Paris 2024 Committee has been pretty tight-lipped about the decision, saying in a statement “the program of events for the 2024 Paris Games is final and cannot be changed.”

Paris 2024 President Tony Estanguet is on record saying he prefers sports which are popular on social networks with younger people, but Espinos isn’t buying his logic.

“The Olympic Games helped us demonstrate karate is a modern, appealing and spectacular discipline. There are no valid reasons to exclude karate from Paris 2024,” said Espinos.

“We generated more interest, had greater TV audiences and received more media coverage in France during the Games than any of the other additional sports. This was attested by an independent study produced by Nielsen Sports.”

French Karate Federation President Francis Didier agrees, and has written a letter to Estanguet to reconsider his stance.

Estanguet and the IOC have replied to all pleas for karate’s inclusion in Paris 2024 with the same “the list is final and can’t be changed” response.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Karate - Men's -67kg Kumite - Medal Ceremony - Nippon Budokan, Tokyo, Japan - August 5, 2021. Gold medallist Steven Da Costa of France reacts. REUTERS/Carl Recine
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Karate - Men's -67kg Kumite - Medal Ceremony - Nippon Budokan, Tokyo, Japan - August 5, 2021. Gold medallist Steven Da Costa of France reacts. REUTERS/Carl Recine

Steven Da Costa was the flag bearer for France at the Tokyo Games closing ceremony and won gold in the men’s 67 kg kumite event. He’s devastated he likely won’t get the chance to defend his medal.

He tweeted, “I trained like hell. I brought the gold back to France. I carried the flag high. I was on cloud nine. With your support I want to defend my Olympic title in Paris.”

While that seems like a long shot, the WKF has already kicked the door open once. Just because it closed doesn’t mean it can’t be kicked open again.

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