Karate at Tokyo 2020

Karate made its historic debut on the Olympic stage at Tokyo 2020, although the Games were postponed until 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The sport was one of five put forward to the programme by organisers in September 2015, alongside baseball/softball, climbing, skateboarding and surfing.

All five were then officially accepted onto the programme at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session before the Rio 2016 Games.

As the sport originated in Japan, karate "came home" for the Olympics in Tokyo.

Competition took place at the Nippon Budokan, the spiritual home of Japanese martial arts and a legacy venue from the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

Both kumite and kata competitions were held, for men and women.

The men locked horns at under-67 kilograms, under-75kg and over-75kg in the kumite, with the women battling at under-55kg, under-61kg and over-61kg.

"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," World Karate Federation President Antonio Espinós said.

"All the sports fans around the world could enjoy the added values that karate brings to the Olympic Movement.

"We are in the best situation to continue in the Olympic Games. 

"We will improve as a sport better and faster inside the Olympic Movement than outside of it. 

"After our success in Tokyo, the IOC should show solidarity to consider karate as a permanent Olympic sport."

Eight gold medals were available at Tokyo 2020, and they were won by eight different countries.

Japan, Spain, Egypt, Italy, Bulgaria, France, Iran and Serbia all managed to top a podium.

Hosts Japan topped the medal table by also winning a silver and a bronze.

Karate's Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020 took place at the Nippon Budokan ©Getty Images
Karate's Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020 took place at the Nippon Budokan ©Getty Images


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Tokyo 2020 Qualification System

Forty men and 40 women competed in karate at Tokyo 2020, across all of the kumite divisions and the kata.

There was a maximum of 10 athletes in each competition.

Countries were restricted to four men and four women, meaning they could have one athlete in each event.

As the World Karate Federation has five men's and five women's weight divisions in kumite, these were combined into the three Olympic classes for both genders.

The governing body's Olympic standings, based on performance at major events, were a key way to qualify for the Games.

One quota place was allocated to the four highest athletes in the rankings for each event, with the deadline of May 2021.

An Olympic Qualification Tournament was also be held in 2021, where the three highest placed athletes in each category qualified. 

Twelve quota places were available through continental representation, spread across all of the events.

Three places were on offer for Africa and the Americas, and were split between at least two countries.

Asia, Europe and Oceania each had two places available.

The 2019 European Games in Minsk and Pan American Games in Lima served as direct qualification events, with the Olympic standings the criteria for the other continents.

Japan, as the host nation, were entitled to field an athlete in each competition while two men and two women were picked through the International Olympic Committee's Tripartite Commission.

Full details of the qualification system can be viewed here.

Kata and kumite divisions were contested at Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images
Kata and kumite divisions were contested at Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images


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Olympic Standings

The World Karate Federation's Olympic Standings were the main path for athletes trying to qualify for the sport's historic debut at Tokyo 2020.

Ranking points for the standings were available from major competitions, with the qualifying window opening on July 2, 2018.

One quota place was allocated to the four highest athletes in the rankings for each event, after the deadline of May 2021.

This ensured that the stakes were higher than ever at the flagship karate events.

The first event to count towards the standings was the Karate 1-Premier League meeting in Berlin in 2018.

All events on the WKF's flagship circuit then counted, as did the 2018 World Championships in Madrid.

Continental Championships also counted towards the rankings, alongside Karate-1 Series A events.

As two events offering ranking points were cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, it was agreed that the equivalent events in 2021 would serve as qualifiers after the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were moved back a year.

The cancelled events were the Karate 1-Premier League leg in Rabat and the European Championships in Baku.

It meant the 2021 Premier League competition in Rabat will offer ranking points, although the WKF Executive Committee kept the possibility of replacing this event with another Karate 1-Premier League tournament.

Ranking points were also available at the 2021 European Championships in Gothenburg, in place of the Baku event.

Full details of the Olympic standings can be viewed here.

Forty men and 40 women competed when karate made its Olympic debut ©Getty Images
Forty men and 40 women competed when karate made its Olympic debut ©Getty Images


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Olympic Qualification Tournament

Karate's Olympic Qualification Tournament for Tokyo 2020 was due to be held in Paris between May 8 and 10 in 2020, but was called off because of the coronavirus pandemic.

It was eventually held in the French capital between June 11 and 13 in 2021.

Competition was held at Pierre de Coubertin Sports Hall and athletes had the chance to directly qualify for the Olympic Games.

Twenty-four athletes booked their spots through the rearranged tournament, with the top three in each category making it to Tokyo.

Three days of competition were held and the Qualification Tournament was broadcast live on many television networks around the world.

Paris hosted the Olympic Qualification Tournament in 2021 ©WKF
Paris hosted the Olympic Qualification Tournament in 2021 ©WKF


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Let's 55

The popularity of karate in Japan was proven by Tokyo 2020's "Let's 55" campaign, which aimed to provide opportunities for fans to get to know all 55 competitions of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Karate was one of the sports involved when more than 15,000 people gathered for a "one-year to go" event at the Tokyo International Forum in July 2019.

Demonstrations of both kumite and kata took place and hundreds of youngsters were involved in classes.

A kata performance was also broadcast live by the Olympic Channel.

The sport also featured at an event at the Tokyo Stock Exchange, where top Japanese athletes carried out exhibitions.

At Mitsui Shopping Park, a karate tatami was installed and youngsters had the chance to try out different techniques, under the watchful eye of instructors.

Kata was performed on the main stage and Olympic mascot Miraitowa dressed in a karategi.

Youngsters tried out karate as part of Let's 55 initiatives ©WKF
Youngsters tried out karate as part of Let's 55 initiatives ©WKF


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Olympic Test Event

The karate test event for Tokyo 2020 was held in September 2019 at the Nippon Budokan.

Organisers reviewed the competition schedule as well as operations, transport and procedures.

More than 30 Japanese athletes took part, with the event mirroring the second day of Tokyo 2020 competition.

Sixty-five staff members and 35 technical officials were also involved.

The competition followed the Karate 1-Premier League in Tokyo and was part of the "Ready Steady Tokyo" test event series.

The Budokan hosted the Olympic test event ©WKF
The Budokan hosted the Olympic test event ©WKF


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Olympic Seminar

The World Karate Federation held its first Olympic Seminar in September 2019 to give coaches from around the world a glimpse of what things would be like at Tokyo 2020.

Tokyo 2020 sports director and Olympic hammer gold medallist Koji Murofushi led the event alongside WKF Athletes' Commission chairman Davide Benetello.

Coaches were given an overview of preparations for the Games and issues such as protection of athletes, clean sport and the general rules of behaviour were discussed.

The event was held in the Nippon Budokan where karate was held at the Olympics, with around 100 coaches attending in all.

Coaches from around the world took part in the Olympic Seminar ©WKF
Coaches from around the world took part in the Olympic Seminar ©WKF