Karate, a system of unarmed combat that literally means “empty hand,” is said to have developed during the 17th century in the Okinawa prefecture, a chain of islands off the southern coast of Japan. Despite being popularized worldwide as a sport after World War II, karate — along with four other sports — will be part of the Summer Olympics for the first time in 2020. Fittingly, it makes its Olympic debut in Japan, where the sport, which involves executing arm- and leg-based strikes, first originated.
It joins judo, taekwondo, and wrestling as the only Olympics-approved martial arts — for 2020 anyway: Karate failed to make the cut for the Paris Olympics in 2024.
With that in mind, here’s everything you need to know to enjoy karate during the Tokyo Olympics next summer.
Karate Events at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics
In Tokyo, Karate practitioners, or karatekas, will compete at Nippon Budokan, an indoor legacy venue built to host judo events at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Since then, Nippon Budokan, which is located in Kitanomaru Park in the center of Tokyo, has hosted various sports and music acts — including the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Diana Ross — but it’s best known as the home of Japanese martial arts. It was the site of the first Karate World Championships in 1970 and to this day still hosts the national championships for judo, kendo, aikido and more.
At the 2020 Olympics, both the men and the women will compete in two karate events at Nippon Budokan: kata, a solo form discipline, and kumite, a sparring discipline.
In the Olympics, there will be one kata event — and one gold medal — each for men and women. During the competition, karatekas will perform a series of offensive and defensive movements, known as forms, against a virtual opponent. There are 102 kata approved by the World Karate Federation (WKF) that the athletes can choose from, such as Heian Shodan and Nijushiho.
Unlike in traditional competitions, which are scored using a flag system, Olympic judges will use a point system to evaluate the athletes’ technical performance, taking things like techniques, timing and breathing into consideration, as well as their athletic performance — i.e. strength, speed and balance.
According to this new scoring system, an individual’s two highest and lowest scores will be thrown out, with the three remaining added together to represent their final score. After a ranking round, top performers will either progress to either the bronze medal or final bout.
Check out the full schedule of the 2020 Olympic Karate events.
The WKF recognizes five weight classes in competition. But in the Olympics, men’s and women’s kumite will be consolidated into three weight classes. For men those classes are up to 67 kilograms, up to 75kg, and over 75kg, and for women it’s and up to 55 kg, up to 61kg and over 61kg.
Within each weight class, pairs of karateka will compete against each other in an 8-by-8-meter area for up to three minutes. Points are awarded when an athlete lands a properly executed strike, kick or punch on various parts of their opponent’s body, such as their head, neck, belly or back.
The first karateka to score eight points more than their competitor, or the karateka with the most points at the end of the match is the winner. In the event of a tie, judges determine the winner.
Competitors in each weight class will have to progress through three rounds — an elimination round, the semi-final, and the final — in pursuit of a gold medal.
How Karateka qualify for the Olympics
The WKF has more than 190 members but only 80 competitors will qualify the compete in Tokyo: 10 in each kumite weight class for both the men and the women and 10 men and 10 women in kata.
There are a few different ways to earn a spot on that list. The first is through qualification.
Thirty-two athletes (16 men and 16 women) will qualify based on their world ranking as of April 6, 2020. Twelve more men and 12 more women will qualify based on their results at a tournament in Paris, France from May 8 to 10, 2020. And 12 athletes will qualify at two continental events: the European Games which will be held June 14 to 30, 2019 in Minsk, Belarus and the Pan-American Games July 26 to Aug. 11, 2019 in Lima, Peru (details here).
The second pathway to the Olympics is open to citizens of the host country — Japan is allowed to appoint eight athletes (four men and four women) to their Olympic team. If any of those athletes qualify via their world ranking or a tournament, those spots will be reallocated to other athletes.
The four final Olympic slots will be chosen by the Tripartite Commission, which is made up of the National Olympic Committees, the International Olympic Committee and the International Federations.
On Oct. 14, 2019 the International Olympic Committee will invite all eligible National Olympic Committees to submit their requests for Tripartite Commission Invitation Places by Jan. 15, 2020, according to the rules. The allocation of the last four spots will be confirmed after the end of the qualification period for karate, which has yet to be determined.
By June 2, 2020, the WKF will publish a list of the qualified athletes on the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 section of its website. The National Olympic Committees will then have two weeks to confirm if they wish to send those athletes to the Games.