Sakura Kokumai will become the first American athlete to compete in karate when the sport debuts on Day 13 of the Tokyo Olympics.
The 28-year-old, who lives in Southern California, began practicing karate at the age of 7, while his family lived in Hawaii. She grew up in Hawaii and Japan and won her first world championship medal in 2012.
“Karate has been a part of my life for a long time now,” she told TeamUSA.org in September. “It might be new for the Olympics, but there are so many people practicing karate in the world, and I think the people who practice karate have a very personal relationship with the sport. I hope the Olympics will allow people to see what we are doing and why we are doing what we are doing.
Sakura Kokumai is the first American karate athlete in Olympic history. As an American of Japanese descent, she takes great pride in representing the United States at the Tokyo Olympics, but she has also been discriminated against near her home in Orange. In this Life Connected Olympic Edition report, Kathy Vara explains how Sakura continues to move forward on her unique trip to Tokyo.
The seven-time senior national champion will be the only American among the 40 athletes competing in karate in Tokyo.
New to karate? Here’s how to look when the sport makes its Olympic debut.
The playoff rounds, which can be broadcast here, will begin Wednesday at 6 p.m. PT. Click here to watch the semi-finals and final, scheduled for Thursday at 1 a.m. PT.
Generations of determined athletes like Kokumai have collectively spent half a century training, studying and working towards their goal, overcoming setbacks and patiently honing their martial art for the big time.
That epic quest finally comes to an end on Thursday – Wednesday night in California – when some of modern karate’s brightest talents step onto the tatami mat at Nippon Budokan to begin three historic days of competition on its Olympic debut.
“Nothing will be the same for karate after Tokyo,” said Antonio Espinós, president of the World Karate Foundation and one of the main forces behind his Olympic addition.
Espinós has spent his life in karate as a competitor and executive, and the 73-year-old Spaniard is beaming satisfaction at having reached this milestone in Japan. Karate is ubiquitous as a stylized cinematic tool and recreational activity, but its current competitive form is often either unknown and misunderstood, or ridiculed as boring.
Will casual sports fans like what they see of Tokyo? It won’t exactly look like the All Valley tournament on “Cobra Kai,” and it’s definitely not a Chuck Norris movie.
Espinós still believes that real karate can captivate the world.
“His life will change, and several million people will discover this sport, the martial art,” he said. “The Olympic Games, for this sport, are a unique scenario that no other opportunity can offer. I am sure we are ready. We have been working for many years to have this opportunity.
Karate is already known in all corners of the globe, of course. It has had an indelible presence in film and television for decades, and thousands of dojos thrive on city streets and in malls around the world.
But as one of four new Olympic sports added to the Tokyo program, the competitive forms of karate will receive unprecedented general attention.
Olympic competition will take place in both kumite – competitive sparring – and kata, a display of form often compared to a gymnastic exercise on the floor.
Espinós and his karatekas colleagues have been trying to gain Olympic recognition since 1970, also when the first world championships were held at the Budokan. They were finally successful in 2016, with his importance to Japan playing a big part in the decision.
This is a temporary addition: karate is not on the Paris agenda for 2024. Espinós and other karate experts still believe their decades of hard work and sacrifice are about to pay off in Paris. Budokan, and a permanent Olympic place will be their eventual reward.
“Without the Olympics, we would still say, ‘How big is karate? How good is karate? ‘ », Said Espinós. “Now millions of people will watch our sport and learn about karate, and they will be added to our millions of supporters around the world.”
Karate proliferated in Japan in the early part of the 20th century after arriving from the annexed islands of Okinawa in the far southwest. It became popular after WWII in Okinawa among the American military and other Westerners stationed in the area, and it was exported around the world.
That’s when the movies became mesmerized by this high-testosterone chase and its exotic, camera-friendly techniques like knife-hitting – colloquially known as karate chop.
In the same way that the “Rocky” movies have distorted the perspective of casual sports fans on the true nature of boxing, pop culture karate has seeded ideas of fantastic sporting feats that no sport could possibly match. measure.
In the 1970s and beyond, kumite was a technical and patient form of combat. Norris – a champion of Tang Soo Do (Korean karate-based martial art) before his film career – and other greats clashed in a style that promised the violence of an opera, but often resulted in cautious fights during which casual observers struggled to understand the intricacies of what they were. seeing.
The sport has evolved and kumite is now more aggressive and more fan-friendly, but it still often feels like a painful game of tag. Don’t expect Daniel LaRusso’s crane kick in “The Karate Kid”, and please forget anything that sounds like a touch of death.
The kata is quite another thing: a contemplative and cerebral discipline with a holistic attraction for some.
Toshihisa Nagura, the secretary general of the WKF, believes that the coronavirus pandemic could propel this form of sport to great heights.
“I believe kata athletes were able to discover the significant meaning of kata by training on their own, on their own,” Nagura said. “I think they were able to find out who they were as human beings, and they had the opportunity to look deep inside themselves. The athletes have been placed in this space by COVID-19, and I hope they were able to achieve a state of mind that they could not normally reach, and I hope they can demonstrate it on the tatami this week. “