Karate's Olympic debut: Unforgettable from start to finish
From the start of the XXXII Olympiad to the end, Karate made an indelible mark on Tokyo 2020 that will be remembered long into the future.
A week before the Karate competition even got underway in the Japanese capital, our sport was already basking in the global spotlight thanks to Venezuelan Kata legend Antonio Diaz, who had the privilege of carrying his country’s flag during the Parade of Nations at the Opening Ceremony.
The 41-year-old Diaz, a two-time World and 22-time Continental Champion, said his role was a double honour: a chance to represent both the country and the sport he loves.
“Before going out to the Parade of Nations, I was already excited,” said Diaz. “I read all the messages and comments on social networks from so many people, some that I have never met but were thrilled because they could find a little piece of them at that inauguration through me.
And motivate and inspire the world was exactly what our 82 Olympic karatekas did over the three days of competition from 5-7 August at the iconic Nippon Budokan.
In total, 40 women and 42 men (including two athletes from the International Olympic Committee’s Refugee Olympic Team) took to the tatami at Tokyo 2020 – 61 in Kumite and 21 in Kata.
The athletes came from 36 different countries, a glowing testament to the sport’s global reach. Even more telling, however, was that karatekas from 20 nations went home with medals, with all eight gold medals being won by athletes with different passports, namely: Bulgaria, Egypt, France, Iran, Italy, Japan, Serbia and Spain.
Each day of the competition also saw numerous dignitaries from the world of sports and politics arrive at the Budokan to watch the action. World Karate Federation (WKF) President Antonio Espinós was on hand to greet them all, including International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach.
Women’s Kata kicked things off with a flourish on Day 1. Sandra Sanchez of Spain claimed the sport’s first ever Olympic gold with a win over fierce rival Kiyou Shimizu of Japan in the final. Sanchez now holds the unique distinction of being the current Olympic, World and European Champion.
The victory was all the sweeter for 39-year-old Sanchez, as she was celebrating her fifth wedding anniversary the same day with husband and coach Jesus del Moral.
“It is even more special because it is the first time Karate is in the Olympics,” Sanchez said. “Last year all of us had a very difficult time [due to COVID-19] and therefore I am feeling great joy for being able to win this gold.”
In the Men’s Kumite -67 kg, France’s Steven Da Costa topped the podium, blanking Turkey’s Eray Samdan 5-0 in the final. Since his gold medal-winning performance, Da Costa has been Karate’s most vocal proponent to get the sport reinstated onto the Olympic programme. With the next Games set to take place in Paris in 2024, Da Costa relishes the opportunity to defend his title on home soil.
“Public opinion has changed a lot since Tokyo,” Da Costa told La Semaine this week. “A lot of people are in favour of Karate in Paris and even the Sports Minister said she supported me”
In the Women’s Kumite -55kg category, Bulgaria’s Ivet Goranova beat Ukraine’s Anzhelika Terliuga to the gold.
Summing up Karate’s first day of competition better than anyone was Austria’s Bettina Plank (bronze medal, Women’s Kumite -55kg): “I really think we wrote history today.”
And the history books continued to be rewritten on Day 2, this time with Men’s Kata, Women’s Kumite -61 kg, and Men’s Kumite -75 kg taking centre stage.
Kata heavyweights Ryo Kiyuna of Japan and Damian Quintero of Spain predictably met in the final, but it was local favourite Kiyuna who reigned supreme, bringing home gold for his country and his native Okinawa, the historical birthplace of Karate.
Kiyuna made headlines not only for his near flawless performance but also for bringing a photo of his late mother with him to the medal ceremony.
“My mother really dreamed of seeing the gold medal I won,” Kiyuna said. “That was her dream. She passed away two years ago and I would have loved her to be here to see me.
“The day before I left Okinawa for the Olympics, I decided to bring the photo with me. I wanted to climb to the highest part of the podium with her.
“She has been my support, my core since I was a young boy, so I wanted her to see the view from the top of the podium. I kept my promise to her. I think she was smiling and crying in heaven.”
In the Kumite finals, Serbia’s Jovana Prekovic claimed gold over China’s Xiaoyan Yin in the Women’s -61kg division, while Italian Luigi Busa outlasted Azerbaijani legend Rafael Aghayev in the Men’s -75kg category.
Day 3 brought the Karate competition to a memorable close, with the Women’s Kumite +61 kg and Men’s Kumite +75 kg rounding out the action in style.
In the Women’s Kumite +61 kg, Egypt’s Feryal Abdelaziz narrowly defeated Azerbaijan’s Iryna Zaretska to claim Africa’s first Olympic Karate gold. Abdelaziz also became the first Egyptian woman to ever win an Olympic gold medal.
“Karate has always been practiced in Egypt and we have many female World Champions,” said Abdelaziz. “As an Arab woman, there are certain challenges in doing martial arts, but I never questioned my perseverance. It is such a privilege to win, and it hasn’t come overnight. It is a wonderful achievement.”
The final of the Men’s Kumite +75 kg was also remarkable, thanks in part to the outcome of the final between Saudi Arabia’s Tareg Hamedi and Iran’s Sajad Ganjzadeh that went viral on social media.
Ganjzadeh, trailing 4-1, wound up being knocked out by an emphatic kick to the head from Hamedi that the judges ultimately deemed excessive contact, which is prohibited under WKF’s rules.
“I’m very happy that I won this gold medal,” Ganjzadeh said, “but I’m sad that it happened like this.”
It was a dramatic end to a fantastic Olympic debut for Karate, and, as it turns out, there were more surprises to come before the athletes made their way home.
Fresh off their impressive performances, our athletes were back in the limelight again at the Closing Ceremony, where no fewer than 13 karatekas were chosen to carry their countries’ flags.
Olympic Champion Ryo Kiyuna led the way as flagbearer of the host nation, while Hamoon Derafshipour (Male Kumite -67kg) was given the honour for the IOC Refugee Olympic Team.
Having finished fifth in his category, Derafshipour was the highest-ranked refugee at the Games.
“It is the biggest event in the world. All athletes are the top players here,” said Derafshipour. “This was special and important for me because I am one of the 82 players for Karate for the first time at the Olympic Games.”
The other Karate flagbearers were Sandra Sanchez (ESP), Steven Da Costa (FRA), Jovana Prekovic (SRB), Antonio Diaz (VEN), Gogita Arkania (GEO), Giana Lotfy (EGY), Mo Sheung Grace Lau (HKG), Abdel Raman Almasatfa (JOR), Elena Quirici (SUI), Alexandra Grande (PER), and Btisam Sadini (MAR).
Their photos together at the Closing Ceremony shared on social media were an indication of just how much our karatekas bonded at these Games. It was a fitting end to a tournament full of excellence, friendship and respect among the athletes.
POST TOKYO 2020
WKF President Espinós gave Karate’s maiden Olympic appearance full marks and added that the sport had done everything it could to deserve another chance to be included at future Olympic Games.
“We definitively showed the world that Karate is a unique sport and we demonstrated the merits that we have acquired to be added to the Olympic programme as a permanent sport,” Espinós said at the closing press conference. “All the sports fans around the world could enjoy the added values that Karate brings to the Olympic Movement.
“Now it is time to appeal to the solidarity of the IOC; it is time for the IOC to show a token of recognition to Japan and to a sport with such strong Japanese roots; a sport that has left a worldwide legacy of the Japanese culture and traditions as a result of the successful event these past three days.
“In the same way that Karate needs the Olympics, the Olympic Games need Karate.”