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The sport is one of five selected by Tokyo 2020 in addition to the 28 core sports on the program. The martial art was born on the Japanese island of Okinawa more than a century ago before spreading worldwide.
But before the 2020 Olympics, the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires this October will provide the first taste of the Olympics for karate. A total of 48 athletes, split equally by gender, will head to Argentina for the YOG.
World Karate President Antonio Espinos has led the federation since 1998. He began practicing the sport in his youth, moving on to the leadership of the Spanish federation and the European Karate Federation.
Around the Rings Editor Ed Hula spoke to Espinos in Lausanne last month about karate and the Olympics, preparing for the Youth Olympic Games and his hopes for keeping karate on the Olympic program for Paris 2024.
Around the Rings: I wanted to talk to you about karate and Olympics. You’re having the first Olympic-related karate tournaments, karate events on the calendar. How does that feel?
Antonio Espinos: We had a couple of weeks ago in Croatia, the qualification event for Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, which is our first ever Olympic-related tournament in the history of the World Karate Federation. We have started for Tokyo.
ATR: How much work was needed within the federation to get ready for this? To create an Olympic qualification system?
AE: It’s been very time consuming and very interesting on my side, but not easy to get the culture of something different. It’s the first time that we did it, but we have learned a lot during this period. Fortunately, we started very early. Even before the IOC decision of August 3, 2016, we started preparing ourselves.
In October 2016, the IOC approved the inclusion of karate in the Youth Olympic Games of Buenos Aires, so this has been taking a lot of work, because this has been a very specific study of the qualification period for Buenos Aires. Nothing to do with what we have to do for Tokyo.
Also, it included some different categories than the officials want that we have in our tournaments, which has been an added complication, because we don’t have the same weight categories in WKF that we have in Youth Olympic Games and seniors. This is adding big, big work, but we are happy with the results and I think everything looks great.
ATR: What will the tournament for the Youth Olympic Games look like for karate? How many competitors?
AE: We have six –we have for what we call juniors, which is 16 and 17 years old. We have three categories and three female categories, eight athletes each. So we have 48 athletes, 24 male and 24 female.
ATR: Is that hard to pick so few athletes from around the world?
AE: Very hard. From the 48 we have been selecting 12 of them by ranking, two by category, two in the first phase of the qualification tournament, and two in the second phase of the qualification tournament. This makes six of the eight in each category. You can imagine with the quality and the number of people that we have in the world how tough it is to qualify, but in the end we have the best of the best.
ATR: One of the concerns about the Youth Olympic Games for the IOC has been the quality of competition. It sounds like in the case of karate you are going to have a very high level of talent and skill in the Youth Olympic Games.
AE: The highest. The highest without any doubt. At the end, as I’m telling you, the first tournament ranking. And then we had the qualification tournament in Croatia. We had one phase one day and the second phase the other day and we had 300 athletes from 84 countries from the five continents and the best of the best has been coming. Those who had no chance probably didn’t come, because we saw very, very high quality.
I’m really happy about the reaction of the world of karate. I’m very optimistic for Buenos Aires and I feel that it is also a very good opportunity for WKF in terms of showing to the IOC that they can rely on the WKF and it can be helpful for the decisions that the IOC has to take for Paris.
ATR: You have to get through Tokyo first. What is Tokyo looking like?
AE: Well the plans for Tokyo, everything looks great, because the venue that we have, Nippon Budokan, for us is really the best venue that we could ever imagine. Well, I will tell you something. In 1970, we had the foundation for the WKF and immediately after the first karate world championships in 1970 in Nippon Budokan. In 50 years after, or half a century after, in 2020 we’ll have our first Olympic tournament in the same venue in Nippon Budokan. It’s something unbelievable.
For us, Tokyo is not an achievement. For us, Tokyo is an opportunity. An opportunity that we could have never imagined. Such a big opportunity. We are going to take special care and show the best of ourselves and karate. In this sense it is an opportunity and I’m sure that everything will be running great.
ATR: How many athletes will you have?
AE: For Tokyo we have 80 athletes. We have eight categories with 10 athletes each, four male and four female, so 40 male, 40 female.
ATR: How are you expecting the public, the Japanese public spectators, to react to having karate in the Olympic Games?
AE: Well, I don’t know. I am positive on this, but I’m sure that Japanese public will be a part of public in Japan, but this is going to come to many, many people from the whole world to be in Nippon Budokan. As we have in every world championship, we are overbooked by people coming from the whole world. So you can imagine the first opportunity in the history of karate for being an Olympic sport is going to come with thousands and thousands of people from the whole world.
ATR: So you think you are going to sell the tickets?
AE: No, no, I am convinced. I’m sure. I’m convinced. You will see it.
ATR: And what will this mean for Paris? What do you have to do in Tokyo to make a good case for inclusion in Paris?
AE: Well, this is what I was saying. The first day after August 3, 2016 in Rio everybody was very happy, including me. We saw it was a big achievement to be in Tokyo, but already on August 4 the achievement turned into opportunity. Overall, to be in Tokyo is an opportunity to show what we can add to the Olympic Movement and the Olympic program and the Olympic Games.
This is our opportunity to prove before millions and millions of spectators, that otherwise without the Olympic Games it’s impossible to have it.
ATR: Have you had any discussions with Paris yet about the possibility?
AE: No. I have been visiting the Paris authorities a couple of times just to try to establish a relationship, but we haven’t been going more than that, because we don’t know yet what’s going to be the timeline or the approach that Paris –
ATR: And the popularity in France – are there a lot of karate clubs?
AE: I’m really grateful, happy that 2024 is Paris, because we figure that we can show in Paris the social impact of karate in France and the thousands and thousands of clubs and 260,000-270,000 affiliates the level of the French karate athletes. This is the best that could have happened to us that Paris is hosting the 2024 Games. It is a very strong sport in France and this gives us an additional opportunity.
ATR: Karate also seems to have an advantage in this age of the new norm, Agenda 2020, where the IOC is looking to economize, to make things as easy and simple as possible. The venue for karate is not very complicated or technically complex.
AE: No, not at all. We don’t need a new venue or a special venue. We can accommodate venues for other sports that are already in the program. We need three days of competition. The plans are very simple and very cost-effective. 80 athletes doesn’t mean anything. It can only add value. I do not see any negative issue that’s cost, problems, organization, or on anything that somebody could say, “one sport more…” No, no. I only see advantages and I’m trying to be objective on this. Not because I’m a karate person that will say “that everything is…” No, no. I would be ready to discuss with anybody to tell me what the advantages and what are the problems. Problems? No problems with organization.
We are very encouraged about the Olympics. The main message I want always like to transmit to everybody and maybe to the WKF is that Tokyo is not an achievement, it is our big opportunity. We have to work for it, not rest on our laurels, saying how good we are that we achieve to be in the Olympics. No. How happy we should be to have this opportunity in Tokyo. That’s the main message I want to transmit everywhere. This will be the key of our continuity in the Olympics.
ATR: How about karate in North Korea? Is there any activity there? Are you involved in any development there?
AE: I can tell you that for the first time in the world championships that we had in Tenerife in October of last year has been the first appearance of North Korea in this world championships and that we look forward to have them again in the next world championships that we will have in Madrid in November. They are becoming increasingly active. I think that it was a couple of months before Tenerife that they became a national federation member from WKF, and consequently, they were participating in Tenerife. And the congress that we had in Tenerife approved the membership of North Korea, so we look forward to have them now in the Asian Games in Jakarta.
ATR: And you mentioned the world championship coming up in Madrid. You personally must be very excited about that. Did you have any influence on Madrid being selected?
AE: Well, I will tell you. Madrid was not originally the place that the congress had originally allocated the world championships. It was in South America. For not mentioning which was the country, it was in South America, but then they had problems with the venue.
To assure the success of the events we joined with the Spanish federation. They know how to do it. We know how to do it. And for us the most important thing is to have success. We have the support of the Spanish authorities, in this case the authorities from the community of Madrid. The championship has all the conditions to be a successful championships. It’s a very well-known venue in the city center of Madrid. It’s a new venue, so it is a fantastic venue for karate.
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