Paris Karate1 Premier League event a “crucial element” for the sport, says WKF President
This year’s Karate1 Premier League series, which starts in Paris on Friday (January 27), is “crucial” to the sport’s plans to develop itself before its Olympic debut at the Tokyo 2020 Games, according to the World Karate Federation’s (WKF) President Antonio Espinós.
The Paris event has attracted a record entry of 1,096 entrants from 77 nations – many of whom are highly motivated to secure world ranking points that will assist them in Olympic qualification.
“Karate’s events at Tokyo 2020 will clearly be a celebration of our sport and our intention is to strengthen our structures and increase the already remarkable impact of our sport worldwide ahead of the Olympic Games,” Espinós told insidethegames.
“In this sense, the progress of Karate1 Premier League events is a crucial element.”
For the first time since the Premier League series was started in 2011 with two competitions in Paris and Istanbul, every one of the events – five this year – will have TV coverage following the four-year deal announced last March between the WKF and International Sports Broadcasting (ISB).
“For us, this was an important landmark,” a WKF spokesman told insidethegames. “ISB work with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), so we are sure what will be produced will be of the highest quality.
“We know that there is strong interest in TV networks around the world including the Middle East, New Zealand and many European nations.
“Our last World Championships in Linz were shown in 50 countries.
“The Olympic Channel, which premiered our documentary Karate Magic in Linz last month, will stream highlights of the five kata events and will also have news access.”
Espinós added: “We are taking different actions to develop these first class karate events, such as producing and broadcasting on TV the finals of all five tournaments, enhancing the presentation of the events, modifying the competition programme so the tournament starts on Friday and all the final bouts are on Sunday, and ensuring the participation in as many events as possible of the best karatekas around the world, among many other initiatives.”
Those initiatives include International World Karate Day, which will be held on June 17 in German city Munich as part of a concerted campaign to promote the sport and strengthen its position within the Olympic Movement.
In a letter to international karate governing body Presidents dated December 20 last year, Espinós called upon them to hold their own “smaller scale” celebrations which would become part of the presentation that will be made to the IOC President Thomas Bach in Munich on June 17.
“After the inclusion of karate in the Olympic Games 2020 in Tokyo and the Youth Olympics 2018 in Buenos Aires, our next big goal is our continuity as an Olympic sport and therefore to be included in the sports programme of the 2024 Olympic Games,” Espinós said in his letter.
“As I explained to you in the recent WKF Congress in Linz, the first opportunity to achieve this is in September 2017, when the IOC Session in Lima will decide on the sports programme of 2024; karate has to show itself as a world-wide Olympic sport for all social classes and ages.
“As presented at the Congress in Linz, we will present this to the IOC President at the International World Karate Day in Munich on June 17, 2017.
“More than 1,500 karateka will be presenting the whole variety of our sport together with our top athletes in the WKF during an exceptional course and a unique show programme.
“Before this, however, all our other 190 National Federations should celebrate their National Karate Day, at a smaller scale, in a date to be decided by each NF between January and May 2017.
“Whether this is done in a Championship or in a different special ad-hoc event, it is not important. It is only important to send a full report of the event to the WKF HQ office. On June 17, we will present to the IOC President the International World Karate Day as a new proof of our global commitment.
“Please participate in this great worldwide action to present karate to the IOC, in line with the Agenda 2020. Contribute to offer karate the opportunity to remain a part of the Olympic family in 2024.”
All these initiatives are aimed at spreading the reach of what is already a hugely popular sport that has enjoyed a supercharging effect since the IOC’s decision last August to add it to the Olympic Programme for Tokyo 2020.
During the London 2012 Olympics, as Espinós looked ahead to what would be a third consecutive bid by karate to become part of the Olympic Movement, he told insidethegames: “For karate we are ready for the additional benefit that it can get from the Olympics. Most of the countries in the world are not developed. In a country under development all the money goes to Olympic sports.
“Non-Olympic sports get almost nothing. And if we could become an Olympic sport this would really help to promote our values.
“This is the ultimate benefit of the Olympics for a sport like karate.”
There are currently more than 100 million people practicing karate worldwide, with 192 nations currently part of the WKF. Espinós talks in terms of tripling that figure now that the sport is part of the Olympics.
“We are implementing a development plan to ensure that the whole karate family makes the most of karate’s inclusion in the programme of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020,” he said.
“The inclusion of karate in the programme of the Olympic Games was a long-time dream for karate and the WKF. The memorable moment that we lived during the IOC Session in Rio de Janeiro in August was the reward to many years of progress of our sport.
“This ancient modality has been in a clear progression for many years now, and the inclusion of karate in the programme of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 gives us encouragement to keep on working in the same direction.
“I am confident that the inclusion in the Olympic Games will represent one of the elements to further expand our sport and take our discipline to new levels of development.”
That expansion has already been reflected in an increased level of participation in the biennial World Championships. The 2014 edition of the WKF event in Bremen involved 887 competitors from 116 countries. The corresponding figures from the Linz Championships, where the 2020 Olympic hosts Japan doubled their gold tally from three to six as they topped the medals table, were 1,024 from 118 countries.
Now the WKF is looking forward to another high profile showpiece for its sport.
“The Premier League events are very strong in terms of world ranking,” the WKF spokesman said. “And the world ranking will play a very important role in the Olympic qualification process. This is one of the reasons why the level of entries is so high.”
The spokesman added that expanding the sport has been one of Espinós’ main ideas since he took up his position in 1998 and remains a target following his re-election last October for another six years.
“The President wants to make karate as big as possible in every part of the world,” he said. “It is already very well known – everyone knows what it is. In the past year participation has increased significantly in Europe, South America and Asia.
“The area where we are working hardest to make ground is Africa, although karate is already well established in some parts such as South Africa, Morocco and Ghana.
“It is also very strong in younger generations around the world, which is one of the reasons why it has been added to the programme for the 2018 Youth Olympic Games.”
While karate at the Tokyo 2020 Games will involve only individual competition in the kata and kumite disciplines, the Premier League events also include team competition.
The first of the five scheduled Premier League events for this year – the others being Rotterdam from March 17 to 19, Dubai from March 31 to April 2, Rabat from April 14 to 16 and Halle/Leipzig from September 8 to 10 – will feature an increased commitment from the hosts of the Tokyo 2020 Games.
Having re-established their dominance at the World Championships in Linz, Japan are bringing 41 registered competitors to the Paris event and will put the hosts under pressure as they attempt to replicate their overall victory, with 16 titles, from last year.
Underlining the sport’s increasing growth, Venezuela and Malaysia have registered a dozen athletes.
Among the headline performers will be Japan’s 2014 and 2016 world champion in kata, and winner at last year’s Paris Open – Ryo Kiyuna.
Japan’s team will also feature two other world champions from Linz in Ryutaro Araga, gold medallist in the men’s under-84 kilograms category, and Ayumi Uekusa, winner of the women’s over-68kg event.
Spain will be looking to their world kata silver medallist Damian Quintero and Sandra Sanchez, who was world bronze medallist in the same discipline. Iran has registered the seven male fighters who earned the world kumite team gold last October, including headliners Zabiollah Poorshab, Saied Ahmadikaryani and Sajad Ganjzadeh.
Egypt’s world under-75kg silver medallist Omar Abdelrahman will also be present in the French capital along with compatriots Mohamed Ahmed Rmadan in the under-84kg category and Yassmin Attia, winner of the Paris event in 2015 at under-55kg.
Home spectators at the Pierre de Coubertin Stadium sports hall will be fixing much of their attention upon Emily Thouy, who took the world title in the under-55kg category in Linz after defeating Brazil’s Valeria Kumizaki.
“At the Paris Open it will be very important for me to shine in front of the French public,” said Thouy, who wants also to make up for what she saw as missing her chance in the recent European Championships on the home ground of Montpellier.
For Thouy, this event will be another step towards the Tokyo 2020 Games. “Obviously I think about it,” she said.
“Now I prefer to think in terms of progression to claim a medal there. For every athlete, the Olympics are a dream. I will try to reach a higher level because in my opinion, in Tokyo, it will be much better than in October to win the title. The road is still long but, if I go, it is for gold and nothing else.”
Espinós and his colleagues at the WKF are working hard to ensure that karate’s appearance in the Olympic programme is not a brief one. Earlier this month the President paid a visit to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) to discuss co-operation opportunities and to “strengthen relations” with the country that is hoping to secure the 2024 Olympics for Los Angeles.
Last month Espinós was in Paris, which is also bidding for the 2024 Games along with Budapest, where he met the newly re-elected French Karate Federation President Francis Didier.
WKF vice president Michael Kassis has also been busy, holding a meeting with his IOC counterpart John Coates to discuss the growing impact of the sport in Australia and around the world. Kassis took the opportunity to express gratitude to Coates for his assistance and support towards the Australian Karate Federation and the sport.
“We have the vocation to be an Olympic sport and we are convinced that we will give added value to the Olympic Games,” Espinós said. “We hope that we will be able to continue contributing to the impulse of the Olympic movement in the 2024 Olympic Games and beyond.”
Asked if the traditional nature of karate might become compromised by its existence within the Olympics, the President responded: “If anything, it will only bring positive changes.
“As we do in all our international events, we maintain a balance between tradition and the competitive and modern nature of our modality.
“As it can be seen for instance in the codes of the kata modality, the protocols and methods that are still being used take us to the hundreds of years of history of our discipline.”
On the subject of the recent trips to France and the United States, he said: “Karate is extremely popular and strong in these countries, as well as it is in Hungary, the country of the other candidate city for the Olympic Games 2024.
“We are an organisation that boasts having great relationships and fruitful cooperation with the major international sports institutions around the world.
“Karate is a sport of many values. We are sure that the Olympic movement will benefit from the intrinsic values of our sport, such as honour, respect, integrity, as well as the prominence of our tradition and the tremendous influence of our sport among youngsters.”