The Debut of Karate at the Tokyo Olympics, Japan’s Pandemic Games


TOKYO – In a famous and almost empty little arena here, an Olympic sport came and went. Karate has never been an Olympic sport before. It is not expected to be an Olympic sport again. But Japan wanted it, and so it was.

There are two forms of karate: kumite, in which you try to beat an opponent, and kata, in which you, uh, don’t. In kata, competitors compete on their own, to see who can best perform a series of fast, violent movements without tearing a muscle. Then they each receive scores and a bottle of Tylenol. Kata is the figure skating of martial arts and, by tradition, it is the only type of karate that Jewish mothers let their children do. Nonetheless, it’s part of Japanese sports culture, and it would have been wonderful to see the great Japanese champion, Ryo Kiyuna, perform to a full house in the Nippon Budokan, which is the Madison Square Garden of martial arts.

Along with the fans, the kata competition would have done what the Olympics should do: give a host nation a chance to revel in its own brand of sport. Instead, when Kiyuna bowed with an intense look on his face after receiving his first place of 28.72 in the Pool B playoff round, I thought a director might yell “Cut! He felt staged. How strange to think that in years, no one on the planet will literally be able to say that they bought a ticket to watch Olympic karate and then did.

Were these Olympics worth it for Japan? It is a question of economics and public health, and the answer could take years. What we can say for sure, however, is that Japan deserved better Olympics than they’ve had.

Japan wanted the Olympics but didn’t want those Olympic Games. You may have heard that a Asahi Shimbun A May poll showed that 83% of the Japanese public did not want to host the Olympics this summer. But even that tells a more nuanced story than you might think. This poll, and others like it, offered the possibility of rescheduling the Games, which the IOC insisted it would not do. Only 43% wanted to cancel outright; Another 40% requested a postponement.

The IOC claims that as of August 4, nine out of ten people in Japan had watched the Games. But that doesn’t mean they wanted them. People often watch what they wish didn’t happen. Perhaps you felt this while watching a presidential debate or attending a wedding for a mismatched couple. Surely many viewers would have liked the Olympics to be canceled or postponed again, but realized there was nothing they could do about it.

One could argue that the Games were a success as they will apparently be held to their conclusion. You could argue that holding them was the right thing to do. Sure, almost any athlete here would say that, even those who were disappointed with their performance. Being an Olympian is a special experience. As American Ariel Torres Gutierrez said after progressing in kata: “It was the most beautiful thing in the world, whatever the results. I am the happiest man to be here.


Who can not arguing, but the president of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach did it one way or another, that the Games were the same without fans. Bach noted “Often you didn’t realize that there were no spectators. This is insulting to Japan and reflects the legitimate attitude of the IOC chief. Who is Bach to tell the hosts that the Olympics didn’t need them?

The IOC is fortunate to have hosted its pandemic Olympics in perhaps the most respectful free country in the world. This is my seventh Olympics and I’m pretty sure I’ve set the record for most people trying to help me. The hosts were aggressively polite, so eager to please that they would often stop visitors at random that a tip would be helpful, and all I wanted to ask, but never did, was, “Why the hell are you wearing pants? ” I’m not saying everyone should have been naked, but the average temperature here in Tokyo was around 117 degrees and it was twice as hot. However, there were a lot more pants than shorts. It is a formal and orderly culture.

In Tokyo, we wear pants even when the shorts are more comfortable. You only cross the street when the traffic light indicates it is time to cross, even if there are no cars in sight. You applaud a karateka without an opponent, out of admiration for the discipline demanded by the sport. And when the IOC hosts an Olympics that you’d rather see canceled or postponed, you make it work anyway. Japan deserved better Olympics. The IOC couldn’t have asked for a better host.

More coverage of the Olympics:

• I covered nine Olympic Games. Nothing prepared me to see my daughter win a medal
• How Simone Biles came back to win the bronze of her life
Teens Show Unique Skateboarding Culture In Parks At The Olympics
• A bright future for American swimming after the Tokyo Olympics

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