Tokyo 2020 was a historic event for the sport of Karate. Not only was it the first time that it was placed into the world renowned Olympic games, but it was also done so in the nation that birthed the martial art centuries ago. Although Karate originally hailed from Okinawa, a small Island which at one point acted as its own nation, Karate has always been tied to Japanese culture, and the Nippon Budokan has acted as good a stage as any for the sport’s debut.
In this, the first year of competition, eight gold medals were awarded over three days. Two of which for Kata both women’s and men’s, where Spain’s Sandra Sanchez and Japanese Ryo Kiyuna each won respectively.
However in terms of combat, the Olympic hardware was bestowed upon those who rose to the top in the following divisions: women’s -55kg, -61kg, +61kg and men’s -67kg, -75kg, +75kg kumite.
On the first day of competition, August 5th, the first two to square off for gold in Kumite were Steven Da Costa of France and Turkey’s own Eray Samdan.
De Costa, the 2018 world champion, was on many fan’s radars as a front runner for the tournament. Yet, for some reason he had always found difficulty in the past when competing in Tokyo, however that would change and the Frenchman would rise to the occasion and secure his medal.
Two minutes and fifty seconds into the match, De Costa found himself up 2-0, needing only to coast ten seconds to victory. However while Samdan tried desperately to land the last second Ippon for the comeback victory, De Costa took the opportunity to attack with a hook kick and put a stamp on the contest 5-0.
The second bid for Olympic Gold in Kumite that night saw a match up between Bulgaria’s Ivet Goranova and Anzhelika Terliuga of Ukraine.
The two started the match trading Gyaku-Zuki or reverse punches, each scoring but neither taking the lead. They would then exchange flurries, most techniques just barely imperfect enough to score, but most of the action that did matter came from Bulgaria.
This came in the form of both points, and also fouls- Goranova lands a Yuko and then is warned for grabbing, a wazari for a Yoko Geri (Side Kick) and then caught for exiting the boundaries of the ring.
Exiting the Kumite area once again, Goranova finds herself up 4-1 but at risk of disqualification with just one more foul. Knowing this, Terliuga pours on the pressure moving forward aggressively. They end the bout as it started, trading Gyaku Zuki, but this time all four flags would lean Bulgaria, as she secured her place as the first woman to ever win Olympic gold in Karate Kumite.
Two golds were also handed out on August 6th in the women’s -61kg class as well as the men’s -75kg.
The first going to Jovana Prekovic of Serbia who defeated Chinese Xiaoyan Yin. However this would end up being one of the odder matches in the tournament.
The first major connection between the two women came when Prekovic landed a Yoko Geri to the body, although making clear contact, no point was awarded, likely under the justification that it was done within too close a distance.
Again, Prekovic would seemingly score, attacking with an Osota Gari leg sweep, and landing a punch on her grounded opponent. Oddly enough once again no score was given. The clock would run out with the score still 0-0, but Prekovic would ultimately get the gold she deserved in a split decision via the judges.
In the men’s -75kg class, Italy would meet Azerbaijan through Luigi Busa and Rafael Aghayev. In the final minute-twenty Busa would gain a Yuko in a quick exchange. In a desperate attempt to land some offense of his own, Aghayev tries a sweep moving backwards and two athletes tumble. A quick parry and reverse punch combination from Busa would knock Aghayev down with 17 seconds left. However he would return, tossing the Italian with a tai otoshi throw, but it would not be enough to beat Busa, who carried his one point lead to victory.
The final day for Karate concluded with the women’s +61kg and the men’s +75kg divisions.
To kick it off, Egyptian stand out Feryal Abdelaziz took on Iryna Zaretska who hails from Azerbaijan. It was a competitive match, with neither able to score through two and a half minutes in a total of three, but in the last thirty seconds Egypt would take the lead with a yuko via reverse punch. It took her only another three seconds to score another, and all the pressure was now on the shoulders of Zaretska. With all her remaining effort, the Azerbaijan native pushed forward and attacked with big moves trying to make up the difference in one fellow swoop. As the horn sounded in the last moment of combat, she tried in one last desperate attempt to land a spinning hook kick, but it would not be enough, Abdelaziz now the first woman to ever win gold in +61kg kumite.
In the men’s class, Tareg Hamedi represented Saudi Arabia, considered one of the most promising Karateka today, against the highly rated Sajad Ganjzadeh from Iran.
Only nine seconds in, Hamedi attacks immediately, scoring three points with a hook kick. A reverse punch counter would bring him to 4-0. However the Iranian sweeps and punches his way onto the board with a single point due to Hamedi’s back not touching the mat.
No one would have guessed what would happen next. In a lightning fast sequence of events, Ganjzadeh lunges in to strike and meets a front leg roundhouse, knocking him out cold. As the Iranian was stretchered off, Hamedi waited anxiously as the judges decided the fate of the match- if it was deemed excessive contact Hamedi would be disqualified, if it was a case of Ganjzadeh not intelligently defending himself the Saudi Arabian would become a gold medalist.
It would be decided the former, and Hamedi dropped to his knees, his dreams of first place shattered at least this year after an impressive showing and a solid lead on points.
The First Year of Olympic Karate Concludes. Over the many classes competed in, fans of Karate were subject to competitive and razor close fights, as well as dominance and career performances. France, Bulgaria, Serbia, Italy, Egypt and Iran have all cemented a place in history as nations home to the world’s first Olympic Karate champions in Kumite.
We can only hope that as the years go on, the sport continues to rise and grow, but regardless of what happens next, Tokyo 2020 will be forever remembered as a Massive step for the sport of Karate.