The Olympic dream for Karate is over. And the decision by the french Olympic Committee was right. A commentary by Thomas Prediger
The Olympic Dream of the WKF is Over
It did not last long – the Olympic dream of Karate. Last Friday, the organizers of the Olympics 2024 in Paris proposed to the IOC to remove Karate from the shortlist. The Shotokan Times reported about the decision. Instead, Breakdancing and Skateboarding should be included. This is especially sad for all Karateka who sacrificed so much to make their dream come true. Karate at the Olympics will only be a brief intermezzo.
For some it appears as if the participation of Karate at the 2020 Games in Tokyo would have been an acknowledgment to the host country Japan. But it is striking that in France, the country with the largest national World Karate Federation (WKF) section, Karate was excluded. The reason for the rejection of Karate might lay deeper and within the WKF itself.
WKF does not Represent the Global Karate Community
The WKF was recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1999. Since then, it is the sole representative of Karate at the IOC. Like no other organization the WKF has claimed to represent the global Karate community. However, this is not the case and it might be that the committee in Paris realized this. Too many countries and associations did not want to follow the WKF way of Sports Karate. Although it was the only way to the Olympics. Especially, more traditionalist associations had difficulties with the 8-point system, gloves, and foot-protection. Not everybody dream t the Olympic Dream of the WKF. The bureaucracy (e.g. at tournaments), the imposition of WKF rules on national competitions and associations, the stark similarities between Sports Karate and Taekwondo, and the gradual commercialization and exaggeration of competition were the straw that broke the camel’s back
For many, the WKF has become unattractive. But it did not do much to open itself to other opinions, rules, and standards. Maybe it was hubris after the recognition by the IOC in 2016. Or it was managerial dilettantism. We do not know. The rejection, however, has shown that the WKF does not speak for the global Karate community. It is just one association among many. And its future has become uncertain – since last Friday.
Many masters, associations, and Karateka claim to practice traditional Shotokan. They usually do this in order to distinguish their Karate from what is called Sports Karate. A precise definition what traditional Shotokan Karate exactly means is mostly not give. The questioner is left in the dark about the “tradition” that makes Shotokan traditional most of the time. If one keeps asking what traditional Shotokan is many respondents have a tendency to use a rhetorical loophole. According to their opinion, traditional Shotokan is exactly all that, what Sports Karate is not. In other words: It is the exact opposite.
For some questioners such an answer might be sufficient because the have a vague understanding what distinguishes both types of Karate. Or they do not care much about the differences. They just want to practice.
Definition of Traditional Shotokan?
For the community of practitioners and the art of Shotokan itself, however, a definition ex negativo is not sufficient at all. A clear understanding about the traits of Shotokan, a definition ex positivo, is necessary. Only then we will know how to
use and to work it out to its full potential,
spread its values,
create a common identity among practitioners,
attract new students,
show what is has to offer in comparison to other martial arts,
and to develop it further.
Unfortunately, the labels “tradition” and “traditional” do not help to illuminate and to describe what Shotokan is about. Why is that? If we define the term tradition we see that almost everything can become a tradition. As the people in the Rhineland, which is the region where I life today, use to say: If you do something three times, it has become a tradition. A more precise definition can be found in dictionaries. According to Merriam Webster, a tradition is defined as:
“an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom)”
Olympic Games: Sport as A Tradition
If we take this definition serious it has huge consequences whether we should call Shotokan “traditional”. Because sports can be and is already a “inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior”. For instance, the first ancient Olympic Games were conducted 800 before Christ. Back then, they were religious rituals with strict rules and ceremonial elements. According to the definition, they were traditions.
The same goes for the International Olympic Games of the modern age. They date back to 1896. With more than 100 years of history one has to conclude that they have become a worldwide social custom. Even modern Sports Karate is already a tradition. The roots of the World Karate Federation date back to the 1960´s. Thus, it is only 30 years younger than Shotokan itself. In 2020, the WKF will introduce Karate to the Olympic Games. Sports Karate will then become a part of a more than 2.800 year old tradition of organized sports competition.
Shotokan Karate, on the other hand, was developed by Gichin Funakoshi in the 1920´s and 1930´s. And he did not develop it from scratch. He recombined Okinawa Karate styles and enriched them with some new ideas. But Karate itself is much older and has its roots in China. If we were consequent we must say that Okinawa Karate is more traditional than “traditional” Shotokan Karate.
To label Shotokan as traditional does not hold water. Because we must also understand that the term tradition is not a good quality indicator. A tradition might be outdated, inefficient, and harmful. Thus, we cannot conclude that every tradition is always good. Sometimes it is better to leave a bad tradition behind and develop something new. From this point of view, it is neither logically meaningful nor practically useful to say Shotokan is a traditional art.
Karate Do is the Better Term
But what is the alternative? We have already a better term at hand. It is Karate Do. Because Karate Do means a way of life and a social philosophy. Principles guide Shotokan Karate Do. The most famous among them is the Dojo-kun. But there are even more. For instance, the 20 Precepts of Karate by Gichin Funakoshi. The first precepts states:
“Karate begins and ends with courtesy.”
One can easily agree that this precept is timeless. It is neither traditional nor modern. It has been and will always be valid. This orientation on timeless values and guiding principles is the unique feature. At the center of the label of Shotokan should, therefore, stay that it is a paradigm to make the world a better place – it is Karate Do.