Sport Karate in the Olympics

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THE BUSINESS OF MARTIAL ARTS IN THE OLYMPICS

Andries Pruim | January 2022

Criticism of Martial Arts in the Olympics.

In a recent Black Belt Magazine edition, I read a couple of articles on the quality of the Martial Arts in the Olympics. We are talking primarily about the Judo, Tae Kwon Do and the recently admitted (but now uninvited) Traditional Karate events. I was actually surprised to read such negative criticism from both Traditional martial artists as well as Sport Karate enthusiasts.

I was able to watch some of the three martial arts represented, and while I can’t say I was a fan of what I saw, I didn’t think it was as bad as some of the criticism I read. Unfortunately, a lot of the criticism felt that the recent Tokyo Olympics shone quite a negative light on the traditional martial arts that were represented.

In trying to determine exactly what the issue was I felt it basically came down to “watchability”. Most of the criticism both from the general audience as well as those practicing the various martial arts was that it wasn’t “entertaining” enough, at least for something as important as the Olympics. As I normally write about the business side of the martial arts industry, I understood that the Olympics is just that - a business (at least they are these days). For this reason, any sport participating in today’s Olympics is expected to bring in viewership which in turn brings in advertisers.

Incidentally, I also happened to read an article by Jackson Rudolph on how beneficial it would be (to your business) by adding Sport Karate to your curriculum. The article was well written, especially when articulating how Sport Karate, or parts thereof, can keep your students interested in training, thus helping your retention numbers. Mr. Rudolph, provided several examples of how the popularity of Sport Karate is growing almost exponentially with a number of Sport Karate Champions going on to have lucrative careers in the movies and TV series.

I have followed Mr. Rudolph’s career over the past few years and I have to admire someone who while extremely successful at Sport Karate still respects the traditional styles and is a strong advocate of martial artists starting with a traditional foundation. Even in his article on adding Sport Karate to your traditional curriculum, he continues to stress the necessity of traditional styles. He just feels that with the increasing popularity of Sport Karate, it would be an ideal consideration for retention and recruitment purposes.

Is it time to give Sport Karate in the Olympics a chance?

This made me think, with the last Sport Karate’s Diamond National bringing in over six million viewers, it is time to give Sport Karate in the Olympics a chance? To assist me in my analysis of such a concept, I reached out to Jackson Rudolph who was generous enough to provide his input into such a controversial question. Mr. Rudolph is a World Champion Sport Karate competitor, a graduate from Stanford University and is presently enrolled in Uniform Services University (Military University) where he studying for his medical degree. In addition, Mr. Rudolph has a very popular Podcast series which usually focuses on Sport Karate and I feel Mr. Rudolph can be considered an outstanding historian of the genre.

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Olympics now a Business first and foremost

We can say what we want about the tradition and legacy of the Olympics, but since (at the very least) the 2000 Olympics, the purpose of this noble event is to make money. In other words, the Olympics of today is first and foremost a business, which means they are looking to make a profit, which in turn means getting as many “eye-balls” on each event as possible. If the Olympics cannot make a profit, it can create a sizable financial burden on the Host city as well as the country itself. In fact, the IOC required a guarantee in writing from the Host city and its Taxpayers that they are fully responsible for all cost overruns.

This viewership requirement is so important these days that the Corporate and Broadcasting sponsors of the Olympics now have a tremendous say on which events should be scheduled for prime time and which events don’t get any coverage. Unfortunately, the one factor connecting all three martial arts, namely Judo, Tae Kwon Do, or Karate is that unless you are a participant of these martial arts, then you really didn’t know what you are watching and more importantly the events were not audience friendly. This lack of understanding of what the viewer is watching, together with the fact that the martial arts events were far too technical whereby the ‘excitement’ factor was minimal.

JR: I also think that the public’s disappointment with what they saw was due to a lack of education. This is one of the important things which is the way it is presented to an audience. It has to be presented appropriately.

If your typical viewer watches the event and doesn’t know what they are looking at, they therefore can’t be impressed by it or inspired by it, then you don’t get any traction by it. Clearly these sports are not getting enough traction with the Olympics to get put on TV, to get the broadcasting so the average American viewer, for example, actually sees it.

The more people that watch, the more people are going to say, “Hey, I want my kid to try that because my kid could be an Olympian one day”. Sport Karate is a proven spectator sport, so if you get it into the Olympics, then the Olympics benefits because it gets a ready-made spectator sport that people are going to tune in for.

Why Should Sport Karate be given a chance?

With the recent Sport Karate events having garnered a sizable number of viewers over the various social media and broadcasting platforms, we have to take a serious look at how to best promote the Martial Arts, especially in viewer rich environments like the Olympics.

JR: If you put martial arts on display at the Olympics, regardless of what exposure you get for any specific martial arts in the Olympics, that is going to have a trickle-down effect that will benefit all martial arts schools.

The problem is the rule sets and the administrative issues, and all of that which creates a sport that really doesn’t look like the Martial Arts of old. It’s essential to keep Traditional Karate in the Olympics, especially if you are going to bring in Sport Karate, and seeing that Sport Karate has Traditional divisions within it so you can very easily make that connection. You need that traditional foundation in order for the audience to continue to understand what’s going on for those dynamic events or whatever the case may be.

To bring things back to this whole idea of sports karate in the Olympics, will it work? If at the end of the day you make it happen, it will benefit everybody! Sport Karate is a spectator sport. It is made to be a spectacle.

Personally, I have competed in a number of “Open” tournaments as they were called then, where I saw a myriad of styles competing in both Forms (Kata) and Point Fighting. I won a number of the Traditional Kata divisions and was very proud in doing so, especially considering the caliber of competitors. The kicker was that for Grand Championship trophy, the winners of the Traditional Karate Kata division would have to go up against the Tae Kwon Do form winner as well as the Kung Fu style winner. A real test of your martial arts prowess in an extremely inclusive environment.

In my time, the night shows not only highlighted the Top Finals competition from the Tournament itself, but included were a number of demonstrations from various martial arts notables (e.g.: Cynthia Rothrock, George Chung, etc.). The combination of competition and showmanship made for an exciting night of martial arts, which the entire family could enjoy. This is what eventually evolved into the various Sport Karate competitions and leagues.

JR: One element of the U.S. Open's Night of Champions that most people don't know is that all of the prize money and points towards NASKA world championship titles for the weekend have already been decided at that point. The tournament runs the overall grand championships that determine the money and points during the day, so that the night show is exclusively an invitational event for the ISKA world championships. With the money already decided, all the adult competitors you see on stage are going up there for bragging rights. The promoters structure it this way to guarantee that the top athletes are pitted against each other for television broadcasts and social media streams, which means that all the top competitors know before the event that there is going to be an epic division come Saturday night. We all train for it and compete in it for the love of the game and the glory of being crowned the ISKA champion.

The efforts of the promoters to put on not only a fair tournament, but an entertaining one, especially the night show, was primarily to ensure that everyone would come back the next year. It seemed that while the Sport Karate promoters were trying to make their tournaments entertaining, some Traditional tournaments were more concerned about following exacting rules and ensuring everyone was doing their forms or fighting “technically” correct. This may be extremely interesting to those very proficient in the art form, unfortunately it made the event quite unwatchable. In my opinion, Traditional Karate competitors perform for the judges, Sport Karate competitors perform for the audience and the reason the vibrancy at Sport Karate tournaments is always so high.

Sport Karate Unity Issues

Before we broach the subject of whether Sport Karate deserves a chance to be in the Olympics, there are a number of hurdles they must overcome, with the leading one being unity. With most sports there is one universal governing body overseeing their entry into the Olympics, unfortunately even with Traditional Karate, it took decades of negotiations and compromise before the Olympics would even give Traditional Karate an opportunity to partake.

There are similar issues within the Sport Karate community. Most Sport Karate organizations are primarily style based and while all Sport Karate tournaments are very open in who they allow to compete, these tournament promoters are not organized in any formal way, mainly for reasons of self-preservation. In other words, the Sport Karate promoters are wanting to ensure their event is profitable which means getting as many competitors as possible and not to lose those competitors to other tournaments.

JR:  I think the number one problem with Sport Karate getting into the Olympics is unity. There are several major leagues that all think they have it the right way. In fact, in the U.S. there are dozens of these regional leagues. These regional leagues are a great thing for Sport Karate as it gives opportunity to those students that would never otherwise have a chance to compete at a tournament. What it doesn’t do is provide a clear picture to the Olympic committee.

The promoters of these regional circuits are always going to want competitors to come to their events, so if they start saying “hey, the whole point of competing here is to get good and then go compete somewhere else”, that’s limiting the half-life of the competitors that are paying you right now. Any tournament promoter is going to want competitors coming back to their event for as long as possible.

You would have to develop a partnership between the Regional Leagues and the National Leagues where those promoters work together. I think that partnerships are important so that you can get these competitors who rise to the top of their particular Regional League and then you have them compete in your big world and national events like the Diamond Nationals, AKA Warrior Cup, U.S. Open or the Battle of Atlanta. If those events become a qualifier event for Olympics, then all of a sudden, those regional circuits can become events that maybe you also have to qualify for.

If these regional leagues can establish partnerships with other leagues around the country, they could be leveraged for Olympic qualifying purposes. In turn they could then partner with the huge National Tournaments, like the Diamond National, the U.S. Open or the AKA Warrior Cup which would allow them to qualify for the Olympics. It would be a herculean effort but one that would benefit all Karate.

Sport Karate Structural Issues

Sport Karate has some additional issues in consistency from tournament to tournament, whether it be for Forms or Point Fighting. There are still a lot of discrepancy on how to score Traditional or Extreme forms and whether to have them compete against each other. In Point Fighting, there has to be more clarity on what a point is and how to properly judge a match.

In fact, my biggest criticism of Sport Karate Point Fighting is the officiating, which I feel is somewhat lackadaisical in its format. You’ll see the corner judges constantly moving and throwing out points without any real confirmation as the officials want to keep the action flowing. Unfortunately for the viewer, even someone who knows what to look for, it is very difficult to know what technique scored and how.

For these very correctable issues, there is a lot of work for the Sport Karate community to come together and develop the proper rules sets, detailed definitions of form requirements and most importantly fully certified Judges and Officials. Seeing that Sport Karate has both Traditional Divisions and Non-Traditional Divisions it should be able to easily integrate itself into the Olympics. In addition, Point Fighting divisions can be considered more inclusive as the Sport Karate Point Fighters come from a myriad of styles and disciplines, including Karate, Tae Kwon Do and even Kung Fu. Once you are in the Point Fighting ring, you are the same and usually fight the same in the end.

JR: What does it take Sport Karate Point Fighting a successful Olympic sport or a TV sport in general, I think it takes three things:

#1 I think you have to have more clear rules. I want to see a kick be effective, not just hit the scoring area, but to be an effective technique in order for that kick to score points. So, which one is it? Some leagues are clearer about that, other leagues are less clear. I think you need a very clear rules set on what is a scoring technique and what is not.

#2 and in the same vein, you need to have certified officials. A lot of leagues including some of the best leagues in the world right now do not have truly certified officials. I think there should be a training system in which a judge watches a fight at full speed, in real time and are assessed on their performance.

The third, and maybe the most important from a broadcasting standpoint, both for the audience and for the rules set, which is that you have to have video replay. From a rule’s perspective, it would allow judges to make better calls, because if you have video replay, it increases the quality of the judging and will significantly reduce missed calls. It’s a way that makes it more spectator friendly.

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Sport Karate Business Benefits

As I tried to focus my articles on the business side of the industry, the benefits of having Sport Karate in the Olympics would be Industry wide. In fact, any additional exposure to Karate in general, whether Traditional or Sport Karate would be advantageous for all Martial Artists. While we are talking about whether to have Sport Karate in the Olympics, adding a Sport Karate element to your curriculum can also provide sizable financial benefits to your business. Some of the advantages of adding some Sport Karate elements to your school’s curriculum include:

Retention of existing Student base

Here is where Sport Karate can improve the life time value of your students. Students these days can get easily bored, so it’s is imperative that you as a business owner ensure the students are content to the point that they wish to return to class over and over again. The retention opportunities are sizable as it provides you with more martial arts related activities, which in turn provides for a very diverse student base. With more ‘arrows in your quiver’ you are able to attract students who may not be into Forms but really enjoy working with Martial Art weapons, while other prefer the more traditional training.

JR:  When I preach the gospel of Sport Karate in terms of business, it is in the retention benefits. Let’s take student satisfaction for example. That six-year-old, seven-year-old, or eight-year-old, in their mind they are going to that Karate class because they think they can learn the spinning kick that they saw Captain America do in a Marvel movie.

If you’re already teaching them the front stance, the low block or a punch, then what’s the harm in showing them a superman punch. It’s not going to impact their traditional training. You’ve taught them what they need to know in class. You taught them a proper stance, you taught them how to block, you taught them how strike, so give them that little bit of fun in the last five minutes of the class.

One of the weakest components of most school’s curriculum is the Black Belt curriculum seeing that most schools focus on how to get to that first Black Belt level. A lot of traditional styles suffer from this problem and lose a number of students once they attain their Black Belts. Using something like Sport Karate could keep your Black Belts interested in training at some new martial art disciplines, which in turn provides you with long-term students (and potential staff).

JR:   Particularly at the Black Belt level, because I can’t tell you how many schools I’ve been in where it’s seems that Black Belt classes are really just whatever the Sensei wants to teach that day. That’s how people commonly handle Black Belt classes, where it becomes a chilled, loose class format. Sure, that might be fun for the first few classes, but at some point, those students are no longer going to be stimulated, they’re not going to be challenged. This is because a lot of the traditional curriculums that have been passed down for years, don’t have complex Black Belt programs.

My point is that the curriculums are way underdeveloped for the Black Belts. That is why we see a lot of people get their Black Belts and then quit the martial arts. This is because they may have tried a few classes after getting their Black Belts and then they realized that there is not much left to learn. In reality, there is a whole world of possibilities out there to enhance your classes. If you want to do a completely traditional curriculum and you’re getting students to Black Belt and retaining them effectively, then maybe after Black Belt is where you supplement it with some Sport Karate.

Recruitment of new Students

If Sport Karate was added to the Olympics as well as your curriculum, it would provide the industry with a wealth of new student prospects. If you took a survey of all the stunt doubles in both movies and television who had a martial arts background, you would quickly note that almost all of them came from the Sport Karate community.

Whether it be the DC or Marvel Movies or the huge number of action Video games, there will be a number of kids who want to emulate those various action heroes. When you look at the Extreme Divisions of Sport Karate you will see similar “flashy” techniques that you see in the Movies or Video Games. Using these Sport Karate elements can be an excellent marketing tool.

JR:  I think there a lot of kids that come into the martial arts right now because they see these Marvel or DC movies and all the fight scenes. And guess who is performing these scenes?? Sport Karate world champions, Caitlin Dechelle, Matt Emig, Sammy Smith, Mackensi Emory, the list goes on and on. It is all those Sport Karate champions that are behind the scenes doing all these stunts and putting Sport Karate moves into the stunt choreography. So, when a kid comes into the martial school because they were at a Marvel movie and saw Captain America do a spinning kick on things, then they want to do that.

Retail benefits

One of the most underappreciated aspects of having Sport Karate in the Olympics and possibly part of your curriculum (in some form) would be the retail side of your business. The Traditional side of the retail business is somewhat limited as you are looking at a single standardize Gi and the same with fighting equipment, with the weapons side of the Traditional Karate not even represented in any Traditional tournament.

If you add Sport Karate to your curriculum and then considering the extra exposure of the Olympics, this combination could lead to a wonderful opportunity to increase your retail business thanks to the variety of Sport Karate uniforms and related equipment.

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JR: When you go from a traditional curriculum that doesn’t have Sport Karate to one that does, well then all of a sudden you need a black uniform, if you were using a white uniform, you need a black uniform for the creative divisions, you need a separate Point Fighting uniform, otherwise you’re going to look like you don’t know what you are doing, you also need head gear, hand pads, double pads, foot pads. You also need whatever the weapon of choice is. For a lot of competitors that could be two or three weapons. You can see those dollar signs add up from a product or retail perspective very quickly.

Seminars

One final benefit both financial and professionally would be scheduling seminars for your school. Whether Sport Karate or some other martial art where you don’t have the skill sets to properly introduce the style into your school, then you can still invite top practitioners of the style to your school to put on seminars.

JR:   If a martial arts school owner that’s new and is trying to figure out some of the best things they can do for their school. Then see an article about Sport Karate, and they think “This will bring more kids into my school?” Okay, let’s give this a try! Or maybe its supplementing your program with a Jujitsu program. You may say “Hey we teach karate here, but every Friday we have a guest instructor comes in and we do a Jujitsu class”. So having something extra that isn’t what your school always does, is something that can definitely help you increase your retention regardless of the style.

This way you not only introduce something new to your students, you can make some extra money for your school as well as grow your network of Martial Arts professionals. The more quality Martial Artists you can associate with the more you are going to grow as a Professional, a Businessperson and as an individual. This can do nothing but lead to success.

Next Steps for the Business of Martial Arts in the Olympics

I was on the Black Belt Magazine website where the 2021 Diamond Nationals were being replayed. I watched a very professional attempt of coverage by a team of broadcasters and people in the know, like Jackson Rudolph. As mentioned above this Sport Karate event had almost 6 and a half million viewers over all forms of social and media platforms, which is the future of broadcasting of any sporting event.

In watching both the Olympic coverage of the Martial Arts as well as the Sport Karate U.S. Open and Diamond Nationals what I did note was the lack of enthusiasm, especially in trying to describe what the viewer was watching. If you are an active participant in the martial art in question, you would have enjoyed watching, but again only to an extent. If more consideration was given to those non martial artists, then in all likelihood viewership would increase exponentially.

JR: I think it starts with skilled commentating. I feel that those who are commentating, those particular to or internet broadcasters of these events need to properly explain what’s going on. In order for someone to enjoy a sport they have to know what’s going on.

Often when I watch Karate, and I’m not saying this is as a criticism of Sport Karate commentators or Traditional WKF commentators, this is just a general conclusion I have come to …. like Traditional Kata for example, they need to describe what a cat stance is and what it is used for. I truly think that education is really important.

We must remember that the broadcast is the product! The winner or loser is not the product. That participation in the event, the judging…none of that is the product; the product is the actual broadcast that those people at home are going to watch. That is what is going to provide the revenue to the Olympics, in the way of the more eyeballs you get, the more money you make from TV ratings.

In the broadcast order, if you open the show with the Traditional divisions, that gives the commentators and the broadcasters an opportunity to tell that story…this is a front stance, this is the punching and kicking, these are the basic techniques. In Point Fighting, if you don’t provide Kata first, then a viewer is not going to know the difference between a roundhouse kick and side kick. Then when it comes to the actual broadcast, making sure the commentating is top notch so they properly explain what’s going on, which will allow new viewers to understand the sport.

Platforms like Black Belt Magazine, which is all inclusive in their support for Martial Arts in the Olympics, has expanded their coverage of Sport Karate events as well as highlighting Traditional Events in order to get the word out there. With the advent of on-line streaming services, more and more media platforms are dedicating themselves to Sport Karate and Karate in general. There needs to be an organized effort amongst these new Martial Arts focused platforms to ensure growth within the industry to where Olympic participation is a sure thing.

With Traditional Karate no longer being a part of the Olympics, some re-thinking is necessary on which components of competitive Karate should be represented in the Olympics going forward. For example, the Traditional Kata event at the Olympics was panned primarily due to the audience not knowing what they were watching, so why not replace it with Team Kata and Bunkai. Here the viewer would not only see some dynamic symmetry, but a visual explanation of the routine they just saw. A more audience friendly experience.

JR:  If you having viewership issues in the Olympics with the Traditional Karate events, then I think introducing something like Team Kata and Bunkai would be an excellent way to increase viewership.

It would be great to have it in the Olympics, but I don’t think you can ever truly escape the solo Traditional Kata, because that’s the foundation on everything else build on top of it.

No one is advocating the replacing of Traditional Karate with Sport Karate, but into today’s forward-looking society, we must be open to new ideas including more broad range and inclusive Olympic Karate Events. Unity is a major issue and not only amongst styles of Martial Arts, but all the support organizations that have benefited from their participation in the martial arts over the past half century. Only through the combined efforts of all “Stakeholders” will Karate be invited back to the Olympics and unless the “watchability” of the events improve then that invitation may not be forthcoming anytime soon.

JR:   At the end of the day, if there is any way to make it happen, then you’ve got to make it happen because it’s going to benefit everybody involved. The only way you are going to make it happen is through the unity of the organizations working together to create that pyramid structure in which the top is the Olympics, and everybody is working together to build those competitors up to that point where they qualify, and you have to improve your coverage of it.

Final Conclusions

While I advocate a renewed perspective on giving Sport Karate a chance in the Olympics, I say this as a Traditionalist, but a Traditionalist only with regards to the martial arts I practice (i.e.: Shotokan Karate and Atarashii Naginata). My first exposure to the Karate tournament scene was through Open or what is now known as Sport Karate competitions and in turn my reason for believing it’s time to give Sport Karate a chance at the Olympics or similar international games (e.g.: Pan-Am Games)

Jackson Rudolph mentions in my interview with him that he feels biases will be resolved once the generational change occurs in the ownership of Martial Arts schools and Associations, but considering the lack of unity over the past 100 years of organized Karate, can we wait that long?

JR:  The answer is a generational shift in that over time it will get better. I think that right now, there are a lot of instructors who are just set in their ways. Say there is a fifty- or sixty-year-old martial arts school owner out there that has decided that they don’t like Sport Karate and they’re never going to teach it, well you not ever going to change their minds.

When I post articles like this, I’m really not posting it for the fifty and sixty-year-old school owners that are set in their way and want to do it a specific way…. articles like this are targeted at your younger school owners who are just starting out, and any school owner just starting out wants to make money - that’s the priority. They may have started their school because they love martial arts and wants to share it with the world, but when you’re starting a business, you don’t have a choice. You have to find a way to bring in revenue so you can keep the business alive. 

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