How can Sport Karate Become Respected Again?

The picture shows children fighting is sport karate gloves. Thus, we ask the question:Is Shotokan effective?

Sport Karate has lost the respect of the global budo karate and combat fighter community. The reasons for this has been the sanitizing of karate to make it more attractive for the Olympic Games. But this project has failed. Now it is time to consider reforms of Sport Karate, to make it respected again. A proposal of reforms in the column Shotokan Essence by T.D. McKinnon

A Proposal of Reforms

Olympic Karate has been talked about, at least, since my heyday as a fighter in Scotland in the 1970s. The tournament organizers have been sanitizing competition Karate ever since, to present a more visually attractive event to the Olympic committee.

But has the whole sanitizing exercise been worth it?

With France leaving Karate off the agenda for the 2024 Paris Olympics, in favor of breakdancing, it appears that the Olympic dream might begin and end at the 2020/21 Tokyo Olympics.

Therefore, the answer must be: No, it has not been worth it.

With the sensitization, sport karate has also lost a lot of respect within the Budo Karate and combat fighter communities. Yahara Mikio Sensei, when asked for his opinion of today’s sport Karate, is reported to have said, “No… no, this is not sport Karate… this maybe ‘sport fighting’, but this is not Karate.” I myself call modern sport karate ‘martial ping pong’ rather than a Martial Art.

Therefore, since the Olympic dream is over, let us start to envision how sport karate could regain its credibility. To do so, I will review a few elements in the WKF rule system and consider how they could be changed for the better. With a focus on Kumite, I will finish with a proposal of how future sport karate could and should look.

Sport Karate and World Karate Federation Rules

Within WKF point scoring competition, a score is awarded when a technique is performed according to the following criteria:

  • Good form,
  • sporting attitude,
  • vigorous application,
  • awareness,
  • good timing and
  • correct distancing.

Once these criteria have been met it depends on the technique how many points a fighter receives. I give you a brief overview here:

Ippon (3 points) is awarded for:

  • Jodan kicks
  • Any scoring technique delivered on a thrown or fallen opponent.

Waza-ari (2 points) is awarded for:

  • Chudan kicks.

Yuko (1 point) is awarded for:

  • Chudan or Jodan Tsuki
  • Jodan or Chudan Uchi.

Shortcomings of Sport Karate: WKF Rules and 4 Areas for Reform

So, where are the shortcomings of the WKF rule system? Following I discuss 4 areas of reform which are fundamental to karate. However, willfully or not, the WKF has neglected them.

1) The Lack of Kime

The first area stands at the center of karate: the concept of Kime. In the WKF rules, Kime is mentioned in the ‘Kata points to be considered’. However, it is yet not mentioned in the ‘Kumite points to be considered’. Why is that? There seems to be a lack of understanding of exactly what Kime is. And although Zanshin is not mentioned in the criteria it is mentioned in the latest rule changes (page 13 article VI) as a criterion often missing in a scoring technique. However, while I agree in regard to Zanshin, in my observation, Kime is the element most often missing from WKF competition scoring techniques.

Because Lack of Kime = lack of intent, that the controlled technique would indeed do the damage it represents. A technique can be ‘delivered vigorously’ (WKF criteria) and have no ‘Kime’. More acceptable, from a Budo standpoint, would be ‘delivered vigorously with Kime!’

2) The Role of Referees in WKF Competitions

In WKF competition, the referee conducts the competition but doesn’t seem to make any decisions concerning the actual scoring. Unless a corner judge shows a flag the referee cannot award a score. At the latest Australian Karate Federation (Australian national level of WKF) Championships, I observed missed flag calls on several occasions. No wonder. It is difficult enough to control a bout, let alone, simultaneously, watch for flag calls. Conversely, I did see referees, having recognized a scoring technique, stopping the bout; however, with no flag support, the referee was forced to restart the bout without awarding a point.

The picture shows that the Olympic Dream of the WKF is over. That is the reason why reforms of sport karate should be considered.
The Olympic Dream of the WKF is over!

3) Yuko is Unnecessary

In my competition days (and still in Shobu Ippon and Shobu Sanbon), an Ippon was a decisive strike leaving the opponent with no chance of defending against it. It had to be delivered with Kime, while balanced and in a state of Zanshin. A slightly less decisive technique would score a Waza-ari; two Waza-ari equaled one Ippon. Cleanly delivered kicks to the head and strikes to a downed opponent generally scored Ippon. However, any technique, regardless of its nature, delivered with all the scoring criteria in place could score an Ippon, if it was considered a decisive technique.

Many years ago, I watched (the legendary tournament fighter) Frank Brennan Sensei, subtly, encourage his opponent to attack with mawashi geri. Mid-kick, Frank executed a gyaku tsuki that knock him to the floor. Frank scored an Ippon, and his opponent received a Mubobi (unprotected while attacking recklessly). The epitome of timing!

With WKF criteria in today’s competition rules, a Yuko might be awarded for the gyaku tsuki; if indeed a warning isn’t given for excessive contact.

As mentioned in the WKF Rule Book – affective from 1.01.2019 – page 13 article X:

‘A worthless technique is a worthless technique – regardless of where and how it is delivered. A bad technique, which is badly deficient in good form, or lacking power, will score nothing.’

Quite right, it should score nothing. From a Budo standpoint: a technique that has not managed to touch enough bases to score a Waza-ari and has no potential to cause damage should score nothing. So where is the point of a Yuko?

And yet, technically, one Yuko can win a match. Indeed, one Yuko could win an Olympic Gold Medal. From a Budo standpoint, that is just wrong. Only a karateka, who really prevails, should win a fight.

4) Senshu Rule and Hikiwaki

Senshu rule: in the event of a draw, the fighter to have scored the first point in the match wins. This rule is questionable. In my competition days, I liked to claim a psychological edge by getting the first score. However, from a fighter’s viewpoint, the Senshu rule is nonsense. This rule creates the incentive to get the first point, which is usually a yuko, under any circumstances.

Even worse is the Hantei rule, whereupon a drawn match cannot be decided by Senshu, i.e. no score given. An arbitrary vote is taken. Hantei is another rule that, from a fighter’s perspective is nonsense. What if a fighter focuses on a counter-strategy? Hantei fosters hyper-active fighters instead of fighters with Zanshin.

In the event of Hikiwaki (a draw) we had Enchousen, a one-minute extension rule. If, at the end of that time, it was still a tie the ‘sudden death’ rule was applied (first score wins). Those rules worked well. They were quick, simple and easy for competitors, officials and audiences to understand.

Reforms of the WKF rules are necessary

Sport is generally considered good for an individual, especially the young: teaching many of life’s lessons. But sport is not for everyone. Not everyone benefits from the kind of stress that accompanies competition with others. Nevertheless, even for those who don’t wish to compete, seeing your art performed, realistically, at an elite level is enlivening.

However, flash and showmanship have replaced Budo and practicality in sport Karate. Not only has this trend lost the respect of the martial arts world, traditionalists and the martial combat fighters alike, but also the wider community. To reform the four mentioned areas would be at least a first step to a more acceptable approach of sport karate.

True Karate-Do Spirit is missing

I have felt for some time that the true spirit of Karate-Do is missing from sport Karate, particularly the WKF. It’s a shame, because competition on such a wide, varied, multi styled level could be a positive, developmental element in Karate-Do. It was for me. However, the tendency for the sport to take precedence, as in many purely sport orientated organizations, diminishes the understanding of the larger picture: Karate-Do.

Karate-Do is far more than sport, more than Budo even. Karate-Do is a way of life, a competition with one’s self: ‘to be better today than you were yesterday.’ Rather than

merely honing and perfecting a few athletic techniques, the goal is being better in an expansive, holistic way.

Shobu Sanbon as Alternative

As for the sport: for what it’s worth, to close the ever-widening gap between the sport and the art; I, a life-long karateka, would recommend to the WKF: If the Shobu Ippon format is too restricting, the Shobu Sanbon format could be implemented. It forces the karateka to focus on a few decisive and vigorous techniques but still offers enough time and space for spectacular action. Of course, if the WKF did that they would need to teach competitors and referees alike the difference between ‘Delivering Vigorously’ and ‘Delivering with Kime’!

This legendary fight between Toshihito Kokubun and Johan Johan LaGrange in Tokyo at the Shoto World Cup 2000 shows how intense and exciting Shobu Sanbon fights can be.

9 Comments

  1. I suggest getting rid of those ridiculous gloves and replacing them with something similar to that won by MMA fighters. Also change the silly looking feet coverings with some similar to that worn by Taekwondo athletes. Then, add a bit more contact in the rules like full-contact karate. Discourage punching to the face but do not punish it, maintain some control like what we have now. Zanshin before and after execution should depend on a fighter but it must be shown. We all know, that in actual fighting, there is no clear-cut way to fight and sport fighting is actual fighting, it’s just in a controlled environment. I believe this will make it more interesting. And that’s what the IOC wants, interest from the audience.

  2. An article well worth highlighting/sharing. As I have authored in a few places in the last 15 years, WKF bunkai & kumite rewards athleticism/gymnastics not practicality. If practicality was a priority weighting, a head punch would score more than a kick, as that it was what the stats show by % has the most effect in street scenarios (high kicks have too much risk in street scenarios). I agree with sport karate for kids, but still not like I often see at WKF events where kime, discipline, humility and other things are often missing compared with traditional Japanese Karate. For adults, all our tournaments are Ippon Shobu (one chance, just as in life) and try to adhere to many of the traits the article highlights.

  3. Indeed, this article reflects what’s going on in the Budo world of karate. Feel that the real spirit and way of life is lost to hypocrisy and money gain. Too bad because there are still karatekas who live with heart and soul for this. Some clubs take advantage of this by engaging in boyfriend politics and forgetting the true nature of Budo. Thus everything will be undone and the true masters will disappear.

  4. As long as sport karate remains very light/minimal contact with tippy-tap point collection, overly demonstrative kiais, and pandering to the judges, it will be perceived as ineffective and useless. I mean, maybe that’s ok for children, but when I see that kind of karate, I’m embarrassed for our sport (no offense to the players). It’s kind of a joke really.

  5. You wanna make sport Karate credible and respected again? Get rid of the point system. This system has transformed Karate from a martial arts into a show-type of combat competition. The reason Karate has lost its respect is because people don’t believe it can be used in a REAL situation, meaning a situation where you are not stopped by a referee after one of the combatants scores a good point. THAT’S why people don’t respect Karate. You wanna make Karate credible? Get rid of the damn point system!! That’s the only way you’re gonna make Karate respected again. Make people see that it can work in a environment that as least controlled as possible. You can twist the current rules all you want, if you maintain the point system, Karate will never gain a reputation of a good and effective martial art and therefore it will never be respected. People only respect what they see WORKS. And right now, Karate, due to the point system is NOT showing this.

    • Good suggestion, Dan. Let’s consider it: If we eliminate point scoring, what do we replace that with? Short of full contact (Kyokushin style), how is the victor determined?

      • I mean the point system should be replaced with a full contact style, punches and elbows to the head being allowed. Why? Because Karate includes a lot of such techniques. And the point of sport Karate should be to express as much of Karate as possible. You can put some sort of hand and even head protections if you want but this system where the fighters are stopped after one scores a point must be eliminated, it only destroyed Karate as a martial art. Make something similar to Kudo, for instance. But this point system where fighters are stopped after one scores a point is an abomination and it must be eliminated. This mentality that takes way too much into account the fighters’s „safety“ is what brought Karate the bad reputation it has today.Let me give you one fact: people want to train in something which they know it can be used in a real situation. And Karate is not seen as such a system simply because of the current point fighting system. Let people see that Karate can be used in a real fight, or at least something as close to the real thing as possible and you’ll see things change, the people’s opinion about Karate will change. You can’t possibly bitch about people liking MMA when you only show them less than 10% of your art.

  6. I have to agree. WKF karate as the go-to has to stop. It’s not helping karate’s reputation in the world of martial arts or combat sports. It breeds bad habits and is not practical. I truly believe something close to the ruleset (not the look) of Karate Combat (karate.com) would benefit everyone who practices. Full-contact, with takedowns and submission/punches to grounded opponent (for 10 seconds), etc. There could even be a scored „point version“ for kids (similar to point muay thai) which is continuous and still mimics a full-contact match. We should of course keep/adapt the classical JKA Shotokan rules about respect, demeanor, manners, etc. This would bring karate into the modern age of combat sports and build stronger karateka.

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