Karate's Big Break? Welcome to Tokyo 2020

Everybody is aware of the existence of martial arts, but in many cases, that’s the extent of it; general awareness that martial arts are a thing with no knowledge beyond the highly inaccurate stereotypes derived from the Karate Kid movies (thanks a lot, Ralph Macchio).  Yes, there is the UFC and MMA, but each sport in its own, non-aggregated form is forced to live out a very underground existence, especially in the United States.  There are several layers to this as not everybody that practices martial arts views them as a sport.  Whether for sport, self-defense, art, or personal growth, martial arts are utilized in different ways by different people.  This means that even as far as the martial arts world goes, the sport division is but a percentage of the whole.  Sport karate in the eyes of the public is, once again, dumbed down to the level of assuming you will see a kid use a crane position (which isn’t even karate) to switch and kick another kid in the face.  (I’m sorry but in reality, you’d get punched in the face before you could even get your foot off the ground).

I have done karate for just about my entire life.  I’ve never known a life apart from it.  I started competing at a young age, and the older I got the more serious I became, eventually competing in countless national tournaments and even getting the chance to take part in a few international competitions as a part of Team USA.  After these tournaments, it was always the same story.  I would return home, not to specific questions pertaining to whatever tournament I had just competed in, but to a barrage of stupid, misguided questions like “Did you kill/knock anybody out?” “Can you kill me with one finger?” “Is this what karate looks like?” followed by random hand waving and Bruce Lee noises, and “Do you ever put on a ninja costume and run around town doing karate?” Yes…I’ve actually gotten that last question before.  When I show people videos of my fights, they’re almost disappointed because A) they have no idea what is going on, and B) it is in no way reminiscent of the ridiculous stereotypes they’ve built up in their minds as a result of the media.  It’s basically like a European watching American football for the first time, if said European’s only exposure to football had been The Longest Yard.  This problem could be fixed with some exposure, as ignorance is the root cause.  As of right now, karate exists only within the world of esoteric fringe sports, but the day that that changes could be fast approaching.

The Olympics are known for highlighting sports for a few weeks every few years that we may not watch otherwise, bringing people together under the shared anticipation of watching our country beat other countries in said sports.  There are sports that gain more attention during the Olympics than others, but the prestige of an Olympic team helps exposure nonetheless.  There are martial arts currently in the Olympics such as Judo and Tae Kwon Do.  Although they may not be in the “Olympic Spotlight” so to say, I’m sure the inclusion has helped their sports.  One martial art that has not had a chance to experience the benefit of this phenomenon is karate…until now.   After years of fighting for a spot in the games, karate has finally been granted a place in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.  This has already begun to help the sport, as the Olympics have both a direct and indirect effect on exposure.

Let’s start with direct.  I think this is fairly self-explanatory.  Direct exposure is the result of people actually watching the sport either on TV or in person during the games.  People like to know what exactly it is that they are watching, so they will look up the rules and bam; more people now understand how karate works.  God knows I knew nothing about handball up until a few months ago, but I can now hold up a conversation after watching a bit of it, case in point.

The indirect effects take place before the games, and have already begun.  Every parent that puts their kid in sports would love to see their kid rise through the ranks and become as successful as possible.  In the sporting world, there is no greater honor than being named to an Olympic team.  When parents are looking for what activities and sports to start their kids in and they discover that karate is an Olympic sport, I would think that would be added incentive to give it a try.  There is just something about the allure of the Olympics that will draw people to certain sports.  So just the fact that karate is now an Olympic sport raises awareness and exposure in and of itself.  People will gravitate towards it for the Olympic effect, and others will come because of the increasing popularity.

On a personal level, I’m excited about the recent inclusion for the athletes.  So many friends that I’ve made here and abroad through karate are some of the most dedicated and talented athletes that I’ve ever met. Although they are superstars within the karate world, there is little exposure outside of it.  Now that the sport is a part of the Olympics, these athletes will finally have the chance to make it to the stage that they truly deserve, reaching audiences beyond just that of the karate world itself.  I’m excited to see what the next few years leading up to the games hold in terms of overall enrollment and increase in competition.  I think the world of karate is about to change for the better and if all goes well, I’ll see you in Tokyo in four years.



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3 Responses

  1. Ramon says:

    Nice article Matt, well written! As a member of Team USA, do you know what the process will be like to qualify for the US team in 2020? Any insight/heresay would be great to hear. Thanks!

    • Matt Matigian says:

      I haven’t competed since 2012 and I just recently started training again, so I’m catching up on a lot of what I missed right now. I’m assuming the team trials at nationals or whatever they decide will be for the Olympic team in addition to the world team, but not much has been revealed as far as formatting as of yet

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