Is Karate a Sport?

Karate meets all the various points detailed in the dictionary definition of a sport:  it’s a “game, competition, or activity”; it involves “physical effort and skill”;  it’s “played or done according to rules”, and it’s performed for “enjoyment”.  In 2020, Karate made is debut in the Olympic games.

I’ve practiced Karate for a number of years and have always considered it a Japanese martial art.  I was recently asked “Is Karate a sport?”.   I wanted to look into this question in greater detail.

In order to answer the question as to whether Karate is a sport or not, we have to know what we mean by a sport.

What is the definition of a sport?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, sport is defined as:

a game, competition, or activity needing physical effort and skill that is played or done according to rules, for enjoyment and/or as a job

Is Karate a Sport?

Let’s see how this definition applies to Karate.

The first part of the definition says that it needs to be “a game, competition, or activity”.

There are certainly Karate martial art competitions that take place both at regional and national level.

These consist of two types of event:

  • Kumite – this is when two fighters face each other and attempt to land strikes on their opponent in order to score points.  These strikes are always done with control.  A light touch is permitted but the opponent shouldn’t be injured in any way.

An example of a kumite competition can be seen below:

 

  • Kata – these are set sequences of movements that incorporate karate techniques such as strikes and blocks.  They are executed in a highly prescribed manner and competitors are judged on their performance.

 

The next part of the definition of a sport requires it to involve “physical effort and skill”.

To participate in a karate competition requires great skill not only to execute the various techniques but also to perform them with control.

The level of skill level required will vary from tournament to tournament.

Local sport karate competitions are likely to have different categories allowing all belt colours, and therefore skill levels, to compete.

For national level tournaments, there is likely to be a selection processes to determine which  Karateka from each country will compete.  In this scenario, the competitors are all going to be highly experienced black belts.

It can take at least 2-3 years in order to progress through the belt system to become a black belt.

I remember as I progressed up the ranks that for each belt you had to learn a specific kata as well as demonstrate your proficiency in performing particular combinations of striking and blocking techniques.

It takes time to learn to perform the various techniques in karate and engrain them into your brain so that you can perform them without thinking.

At the elite competitive level, sparring in kumite becomes very much a reflex game – blocks and strikes are performed with little conscious processing.  This is only possible following thousands of hours of practice.

As for physical effort, just look at the sweat dripping off the guy performing the kata in the above clip.

To the untrained eye, it might look as though it doesn’t take much effort to move through the sequence of blocks and strikes.  However, he’ll be tensing all the muscles his entire body instantly at the conclusion of each technique (known as kime).

This adds power to the various blocks and strikes being performed but it’s also very tiring.

The next part of the definition is that it is “played or done according to rules”.  

Both Kumite and Kata competitions are done according to a set of prescribed rules.  By way of example here’s a link to the JKA Tournament rulebook so you can see just how many regulations there are.

For instance, the rules describes two versions of sport karate kumite sparring and how they’re won:

  • Point Match or Ippon Shobu: The fighter who scores one full point or 2 half points first, within the allotted time, is declared the winner.
  • 3 Points Match or Sanbon Shobu: The fighter who has scores 2 full points first, within the allotted time, is declared the winner.

The following video explains how these points are scored:

 

The last part of the definition of a sport says that it is performed as “enjoyment and/or as a job”. 

Well, having personally practised Karate for several years, I can say that it’s a very enjoyable activity.  There’s obviously the health and fitness benefits but there’s also the personal satisfaction of getting better at something the more you practise.  I’ll come to this more later.

I’m not aware of anyone competing in Karate as a job and as a way to make a living.  There is prize money involved in some karate tournaments: up to $1,000 if you win a North American Sports Karate Association competition.

Karate meets all the various points detailed in the dictionary definition of a sport:  it’s a “game, competition, or activity”; it involves “physical effort and skill”;  it’s “played or done according to rules”, and it’s performed for “enjoyment”. 

However, it’s important to note that Karate is more than just a sport and you can practice the art without ever competing.

There were a number of aspects that appealed to me.  As I’ve mentioned it was a good way to keep fit, it developed my flexibility and coordination.  Memorizing the various kata and techniques was also something of a mental workout as well.

There was also something about performing katas that had also been practiced by other karateka around the world and from previous generations.  It was like a link to a larger karate family.

It’s also a martial art so there is a self defense component to it.  However, perhaps the main thing for me was that it was just good fun to do.

When did karate become a sport?

Gichin Funakoshi (1868 – 1957) is known as the “father of modern karate” and was born in Okinawa, one of the small islands of Japan.  He established a Dojo in Tokyo in 1939 where he taught his particular martial arts style which came to be known as Shotokan karate.

Following the war, karate became increasingly popular and was now being taught at various Japanese Universities.  Gichin Funakoshi at this time was now 80 years old and rarely taught Karate himself.

In 1949, the Japan Karate Association (JKA) was formed in an attempt to unify the various Karate schools at the Universities.  Masatoshi Nakayama, himself a skilled karate martial artist became the JKA’s Chief instructor and wanted to not only standardize the different types of karate training being taught but to also spread it around the world.  Gichin Funakoshi was given the figurehead role of Honorary Chief Instructor.

In the 1950, the JKA started to develop the rules of competition and in 1951 it encouraged free Kumite (sparring).  This marked starting point for competitive sport Karate.

Gichin Funakoshi had always been opposed to free Kumite, favouring traditional karate involving the practice of kata and paired training instead.  In 1956, he resigned from the JKA.

Is Karate a sport in the olympics?

Karate made its Olympic debut in the 2020 Olympics in Japan.  It was one of four new sports added specifically for the 2020 Olympics and it won’t be a permanent fixture.  It featured both kumite and kata events.

Is Karate an individual sport?

Karate can be practiced as an individual sport but as a karate practitioner there’s is also the option to compete as part of a team.  

According to the World Karate Federation rulebook, in team kumite events “Male teams comprise seven members with five competing in a round [or stage]. Female teams comprise four members with three competing in a round”.

Obviously not everyone fights at the same time but rather an athlete from each team will spar with each other.   The winner from each match will earn points for their team.  The team with the most points at the end of the competition wins.

There’s also Team Kata competitive events.  In these, a team of three karateka will perform the same kata in perfect synchronicity.  They will be judged and scored on their performance against other teams.

Typically after the performance of the chosen team kata, the three competitors will demonstrate the meaning of the various moves in the kata (or bunkai) as the following clip shows: