“The K is on the Way”: An Exclusive Interview with the President of WKF on Karate’s Controversial Road to the Olympics 2020 (pt. 1)

Last week I posted an interesting question on my facebook page.

QUESTION: What is YOUR biggest concern/fear, if Karate should become an Olympic sport one day?

Truth be told, I felt a little bad in asking this question, because it was something of a trick question.

I already knew the answer.

It was just a t-e-s-t.

And the results naturally confirmed my beliefs (see them for yourself).

Because here’s the deal: The human brain is wired to always look for negative information. This is in our very biological nature, and there is little we can do about it. The amygdala is a place in our brain known as “the danger center” (remember my post on Karate and the evolution of the “lizard brain”?) and all of our primary senses are routed through it before they get to the cerebral cortex (where our higher intelligence basically sits). And no, I’m no scientist, but at least I know this much.

So, when our cavemen ancestors heard a rustle in the branches, they instinctively thought “tiger”.

Not “wind”.

Which is why there’s a popular saying in media and news these days; “if it bleeds it leads”. Disasters? Pandemics? Terrorist attacks? Instant headline material.

We know this.

Because our biology has remained remarkably unchanged for the past 2.5 million years. We want to stay alive. We shun danger. We are hard-wired for living safely, in optimum control over our environment.

So when it suddenly comes to “change”, the facts are absolutely clear.

Change, evolution and development brings about fear in humans.

But, contrary to popular belief, it is not actually change itself we fear. Fear is only projected at it.

What we really fear is control.

More specifically, loss of control.

Because, historically, control is what keeps us alive.

  • Why do we fear the unknown?
  • Why do we fear the dark?
  • Why do we fear deep water?
  • Why do we fear being trapped?
  • Why do we fear the future?

I’ll tell you why:

Because we can’t control any of those states.

It is not in our DNA. We were never created that way. Unlike cats, sharks and magicians, we weren’t blessed with some of those impressive skills by Mother Nature.

We got a thumb instead.

And a host of other cool skills, like the ability to jump around in a white pajama, punching, kicking and shouting in pseudo-Japanese at imaginary opponents.

(We generally call that Karate)

Anyways, bad jokes aside, that inability to remain in control – that nagging feeling of uncertainty – is the worst feeling most human beings can possibly imagine (which, of course, is why the ultimate aim of any sensible martial art is controlling one’s health by controlling the opponent; through the means of kicks, punches, strangulations, joint-locks, takedown, pins etc.).

So, when somebody suddenly comes along, saying that YOUR Karate will become another Karate, a new Karate, an updated Karate, a Karate that you cannot identify with; you feel out of control.

And you freak out.

Because here’s what’s happening in the Karate world right now:

A team of highly passionate Karate enthusiasts all over the world are, in this instant, campaigning for Karate to become the next official Olympic sport – through a global project known as “The K is on the Way” or “KARATE 2020” (that’s the year when Karate will hopefully have become an Olympic sport.).

That’s right.

Karate is to become an OLYMPIC sport.

The gears for this highly ambitious project have been set in motion by the WKF (World Karate Federation), the #1 officially recognized Karate governing body by the IOC (International Olympic Committee), who have been relentlessly working toward this goal for many, many, years now… but never in such a public crowdsourcing type of way as “The K is on the Way”, which just kicked off quite recently (more specifically; during the 47th WKF European Senior Karate Championships this May in Spain. Look closely at the background in any of my videos from the event and you’ll see loads of “The K is on the Way” banners).

Folks, this is it.

Powerful people are campaigning for Karate to become the next Olympic sport, and this project is growing like crazy.

Karate has tried so many times to become an Olympic sport before, and now, finally, a super team of amazing people have been recruited to make it happen by spreading public Olympic Karate awareness through this new international “The K is on the Way” project.

That’s great.

It really is.

I love the idea, and surely the rest of the Karate world does too… right?


If it wasn’t for the fact that 9 traditional Karate people out of 10 are shit-scared of Karate becoming an Olympic sport.

(Proof of this can conveniently enough be experienced in about five seconds; just scroll through any Karate forum, website or blog where the natural defense mechanism against this virtual ‘threat’ is expressed in the forms of anger, frustration, despair and/or hopelessness.)

But here’s the thing:

If you are to call yourself an authentic Karate Nerd™ to the core, you gotta learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Because, as I’ve told you a hundred times throughout this site, the diversity of Karate is what will ultimately become its strength – provided you harness the innate power in this statement (read more, and see what World Champion Antonio Diaz thinks about this idea, in this post: The Karate Nerd Manifesto). Yes, this idea is scary, I know. I felt the same for a long time.

But as the saying goes, man can never discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore for a while.

Question: Do you consider yourself a traditional Karate-ka?

I bet you do.


Because the truth of the matter is, if Karate is to ever advance successfully thoughout the world in the best fashion possible, all sides of Karate need to be equally emphasized (remember One Karate to Rule ‘Em All?). All faces of Karate must be seen and equally promoted. Hence, in order to achieve this ambitious goal, everyone must contribute. No matter who you are.

Sadly, however, most “traditional” Karate-ka choose to unknowingly embrace the status quo by sitting on the sideline of fear and doubt, unable to contribute to a Karate world in need of their brilliance!

Go ahead, read that paragraph again. I’ll wait.

Then read this:

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

The fact is; Karate is spreading, and it will keep spreading. It will, if dreams come true, even become an Olympic sport. But, as often is the case, one person’s dream might be another person’s nightmare.

Unless you learn the truth.

So here’s what I did:

I went straight for the truth.

Like, totally straight. Like a ruler.

Using my ever-present cyber ninja skills of persuasion, a few virtual roundhouse kicks and some irresistible carrot cake bribes; I’ve actually managed to get a hold of the president of the WKF himself.

That’s right.

You’d better believe it.

The Big Boss.

Mr. Antonio Espinós.

Now, this was no easy task, believe me. Running the #1 Karate organization in the world is certainly no child’s play, not even for Mr. Espinós (who’s was re-elected as WKF president for his third 6-year period just last year), which means he’s got a helluva lot more to do than speaking to unreasonably handsome Karate bloggers such as myself.

But… he did it.

I got him, people!

WKF President, Mr. Antonio Espinós (right), WKF Secretary General, Mr. George Yerolimpos (left).

(Honestly though, it was nothing compared to assembling some of Japan and Okinawa’s last original Karate grandmasters in my best-selling book The Karate Code! But that’s another story)

So, anyway.

To once and for all go to the bottom of this whole Karate/Olympics thing, the “KARATE 2020/The K is on the Way” project, and related topics on Sport Karate vs. Traditional Karate, I want to hereby present my super exclusive interview with the president of the World Karate Federation himself, Mr. Antonio Espinós, who took some of his precious time off to help me make this happen for you guys.

(Like my good friend Lucio Maurino would have said, “amazingly!”)

Well… are you ready then?


Like, really, really, ready?



Stay tuned for part two…

The truth is coming.


  • Dan
    Wow... just... wow. Not trying to be negative about it, but I think this will make an even greater distance between tradicional and sport karate. Will karate follow judo's path? I have my doubts, but that's one hell of a mark for the expansion of karate, anyhow.
    • True, and it would be quite foolish of us not to learn from the "Olympicization" of Judo and Taekwondo.
    • rdiogo
      I think karate already followed judo's path. When Karate was introduced in Japan and accepted by the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai it *had* to follow judo (and kendo) without concurring too much with accepted budo styles. At that time it already has been heavily modified in comparison to 19th century karate. It was *intentionally* modified into a workout method and later a combat sport. Just read Funakoshi's or Mabuni's notes on this – and how disappointed and frustrated Motobu was with the way karate was changing. Fear about getting olympic? Why? It's the logical step and a good one. It seems that people still haven't realized that karate already is (and for long) what they fear the most. Maybe more people will get attracted this way. And maybe there is a good quantity that gets bored with the sport and help doing research what karate was like *before* it turned into a sport – and this seems to be *so much different* to what people in the karate world know as being "traditional"...
  • m
    really great read as always. i love this forum/blog its my favourite martial arts place on the net, my only problem with the above idea is i practice Tae Kwon-do so apart from the negative brain area i have seen my art become a sport and know well the watering down it gets, i counter this by doint ITF so try to keep it pure but this will happen with karate as well , only you have more history so more old schools will stay true to the old ways, buut it will grow more sport mcdojo,s im afriad ,
  • Boban Alempijevic
    I think Jesse-san knows a bit of how passionate I am about karate and that I love growing and learning. To grow and learn you have to be open to new ideas, right? Well Something tells me he will be slightly disappointed in me this time, McDojos, the only thing I am saying. I will stay with my FSKA as long as they do not turn McDojo on me, the day they do I am off. I do not want to train karate that is tailored for competitions, I have never wanted that and my Sensei knows it ( Even though my Dojo has churned out helluva lot great competitors in Finland winning an amount of medals that is insane. But from the beginning I was allowed to train my way, to look at Karate as nothing else then a means to self defence and to use that knowledge ONLY when you are forced to protect people around you self ( If I am alone and attacked I will run, be smart and live a bit longer). For me Karate is not for taking points, nor is it for showing off or to compete who has the greatest looking kata... kata is not for showing off in my eyes, its a predefined set of movements to help you train your muscle memory so that you will be even faster in the case of needing to defend your self or someone else. So, great article, as always Jesse-san has a gift when it comes to writing, I smile every time I read his articles, but on this one I will have to choose to disagree with his enthusiasm about Karate going Olympic. Karate has already weakened to much with all the McDojos, isn't that enough?
    • Boban-san, you would be surprised to learn that what most "traditional" Karate dojo around the world are practising today is a far cry from truly traditional (Okinawan) Karate. In fact, I would even argue that the majority of Western Karate dojos are already unknowingly practising Sport Karate, whether they're officially condoning competing or not. But, obviously, due to cognitive dissonance these people will never learn of thir true situation - which probably is for their best anyway. For what it's worth.
      • rdiogo
        True. I'd go even further and say that even okinawan styles are heavily modified and influenced by japanese karate which wasn't "traditional" at all. I think it's only the wish of all of us to be part of something old and "special" that holds us back to take some steps back to recognize what we are doing. That's an ego thing. The bigger the ego the lesser the disposition to "let go". So from a certain perspective even sports karate is budo in the most fundamental way: It's only one lesson, or one step on the way to truth.
        • Boban Alempijevic
          To simply put your view of the "traditional" karate-kas as having big ego's is a bit narrow minded Mr rdiogo :D It is a bit simplified do you not think?
          • rdiogo
            You misunderstood me. It's not about "traditional" karate-kas and big egos (though this plays into it, too), it's about those karate-kas that think that what they do is in any way sacred without realizing that what they do is due to changes in the past. Around 1900 Itosu was criticized about what he was doing. The (real) traditional martial artists thought it was all wrong what he was doing. He did it anyways. If he wouldn't have done it then karate would have been forgotten the way the european martial arts were forgotten (at least we've got written knowledge on this topic!). So from another perspective he was right and the oldschool martial artists were wrong. Now these people think they are right. If you change the perspective again then they are not because they don't see the changes made. Let's take kime as an example (I remember reading that "karate shouldn't lose kime"): Before 1949 there was no kime as we know it! If you go further back in time you'll see that Shorin Ryu was described as being "ju" – "soft" – indicating that it was internal. And in fact the roots of Matsumura's martial art lie in Tai Chi and Xing Yi Chuan which he studied between 1836 and 1837 in Beijing. Internal power is the opposite of kime. It's about relaxation and maintaining the momentum. So how can kime be "traditional"? If it's not – we must ask ourselves: Why was it changed and is it a good change? It's about awareness of what we are doing. Actually one of the most important principles in karate-do – fudoshin: You stay focussed on what you are doing even if you are moving. This counts for other changes, too. This means it depends on your point of view if sports karate is a threat or a chance. And of course this is about ego: If you hold on your point of view but demand that everything stays the same then nothing changes and you won't know if something is good. If something stays the same and you change your point of view then you will succeed in understanding it. If you understand it then you have the possibility to change it in a senseful manner. If you can change something as you want then you've got control over it. But to have control – you've got to "let go" first...
        • boban alempijevic
          I am starting to love you mate :) See, this is the kind of answers I like indeed instead of the short ones where each and every one is left to misintepret as they like :) Yess, What you talking about is what Jesse-san have tought me and a lot of other karate-kas through his site, and what I have been learning on me own through out my academical fetichism for anything historical :D Change is needed, I agree on that topic, change is needed in everything in our lifes, and I do not look down upon thoose that for example want to compete if we go pack to teh Olympics topic, without the competing karate-kas we will not be able to test out our knowledge and abilities if they truly work in real life situations ( as real life a competition now can be that is... :D ), atleast not if we do not want to go against all what we are tought and start stupid fights in the streets ( would be pretty lame of a martial artist to do so :D ). My intention with "my" karate is so different from teh Olympics "k is on the Way" thoughts though so therefor I am reacting. I am still slightly afraid that change will happen.. dam how do I say this.. in both a to fast way and where it might not be needed, or atleast in some Dojos in a way where there is no thoughts put behind them. This does not take ALL karate-kas over one edge, but it will be sad to see those that change because of the change it self so to speak. I do not write in detailes my thoughts so that people will straight away understand them, never have and most likely never will, therefor usually people understand me as being blunt and not liking change at all :) or more accurate, most people tend to think that I am a backstiving person that do not understand or know about how history works ( Wich is funny with my archaeological academical studies that I have in my backpack :P )
          • Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo
            Oh! I can understand that perfectly! In fact I guess that my understanding of karate is much more closer to yours than to the "K is on the way". I'm a "traditionalist" myself – somehow... On the other hand I don't feel that I have much in common with those selfproclaimed "traditionalists" which are full of certainties on karate and what they are doing because [fill in a biiiiig name] has told them to! No research, no questioning, no comparison or reality-check. They are full of dogmatic ideology, but if you scratch on the surface you don't find much knowledge beyond it. I always found it sad and very frustrating. On the other hand those karate-kas and the sports people are the reason why karate is so widespread. So without them I probably wouldn't ever had come in touch with karate and I wouldn't know what I know or don't know about karate. Also: It's funny but once I explained my view on karate to a friend who doesn't know much about karate by comparing it with an archaeologist's work – so I'd say (from my non–professional view) that you've got the perfect toolset for karate! ;)
          • Boban Alempijevic
            "On the other hand I don’t feel that I have much in common with those selfproclaimed “traditionalists” which are full of certainties on karate and what they are doing because [fill in a biiiiig name] has told them to! No research, no questioning, no comparison or reality-check. They are full of dogmatic ideology, but if you scratch on the surface you don’t find much knowledge beyond it. I always found it sad and very frustrating." Whoa, Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo, I know that feeling :) One has always to be questioning one self and everyone around one. Even though something works for a great sensei, that somethign might not work for one self as perfect and then its up to that stuendt to question himself and what he has learned and try to find an answer taht will fit better with ones own image of karate :)
          • Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo
            At some point I realized that I'm not dependent of great names and that I can't expect that the knowledge finds me, but that I have to hunt for it by myself. After realizing this simple fact and starting the hunt this feeling vanished because I found out that even the great names of the past had to do this. There was not the karate, not the knowledge. It has always been ecclectic, it has always been some kind of riddle or enigma that you are going after. It's not about belts, subordination, names or what people think about you...
      • Boban Alempijevic
        O I am sadly aware of this fact my friend, sadly aware of it. But at the same time I need to ground "my" basics somewhere and this is where I start, in a Dojo with Sports karate strong but with a sensei that has seen and trained in so many areas of Karate that its a bit ridicules the knowledge he possess. This will be my stepping stone for future search for the so called traditional karate, the more rough around the edges one. That part I will never find, the one that "used" to be, since we all know it has changed so much through out the ages, but there is a Karate just for me out there mixed in with all the other changes, mixed in with different views of karate and styles... it is That karate I am looking for, and it is one most likely not considered beautiful or sharp or even karate-ish, but it is "my" karate and that is the road I am walking down :) I know and understand that the Olympic part will bring good things to karate, but I believe that it will bring many bad things to those not able to open there minds completely and to shuffle out the bad parts...
        • Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo
          I think that's exactly what Jesse was talking about and I can wholeheartedly agree.
  • Szilard
    Karate always had 2 faces: the mass sport and the elite sport. There are the people coming to train who never compete, and there are those who wouldn't come to train if they couldn't compete (give them a medal, and they are happy sportsman for another year). The competition part will get a bit stronger that is all. We will have new heroes, our children will know their names. They will have their favorites, yeah, Muramatsu might have gotten only a bronze, but his attitude beats the silver and the gold medalists, and his hair stile is way better... Just like in other sports. And I will be like my wrestling instructor was in junior high: just do my thing, try to get as many people into my training place as possible, if someone has competition talent involve other trainers with him, and just focus on the "martial art of the masses" aspect.
    • Boban Alempijevic
      I like your way of thinking, thanks, I needed to read that :)
  • Andreas Quast
    applaus applaus applaus!!!
  • Te'o
    I like the statement that you make Jesse, that a real karate-ka must learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I recently got back into competing at the WKF level, and for me, it was quite uncomfortable. Not the Kata, but the Kumite was "strange." In our dojo, when we spar, we either fight (free spar) or we use "kata based sparring" to make the kata a part of us. At the competition, it was lunging front punch, back fist, and reverse punch. The very loud "scream" and the instant back out and walk away to "sell" the technique. Kicks didn't seem to count for much. I found myself shaking my head several times. But why did I put myself in this position? To show my students exactly what Jesse is talking about...proper example of a martial artist with fighting spirit. Where are they going to get that if not from their Sensei? I also did this to gauge myself, my abilities, and most importantly to LEARN...and I learn best when I am stretched. I think that having Karate in the Olympics will have many impacts on the sport / art. It's up to each individual how they want this move to impact them. Will there be dojos that go the sport route like TKD? Yes. Will there be dojos that go the route of remaining traditional? Yes. Will there be dojos that recognize those with competitive talent and develop them using others? Yes. I don't see any of this as bad. Remember, your karate IS your karate. While working out for this last competition in a friend's dojo, we were doing kata, and the instructor from Japan said to me afterwards: "I'm sorry I didn't give you any helpful points on your kata. I don't know your karate, but your kata was beautiful." Best compliment ever!!! Stay strong, train hard, and remain open-minded!
    • Thank you Te'o. As always, your input is highly appreciated. Keep keepin' it real.
    • Luis
      Agree, I am now out of shape to go into competitions, but the times i went and compete, I've learned a lot, and I've passed it to my students, so they can grow. Truth be told, who likes to compete, they will compete, if they don't like it, they won't do it, as easy as that.
    • Luis
      Jesse san, with all due respect, I think you're watching many telenovelas (hispanic soap-operas). On friday they use to leave the episode with a big cliffhanger and that's the feeling I'm getting by reading this, you left me waiting for the next episo... erm, part of your interview, like a friday telenovela. Greetings from my part of the world
      • Haha Luis-san, I'll take that as a compliment! ;)
        • Luis
          It is my friend, it is. I think we are coming to terms with our own fears about the "sportsification" of karate, and this interview will help us to see if those fears are real or only are infundated. I've done what you may say it's traditional karate, in the sense that we don't compete so often, neither on karate or judo, and we tend to focus more on the self defense than in the sports; but lately we are trying to be recognized by the national federations on both karate and judo, and we are doing this so we can compete, because our students are curious about these new (for them) world, and we can't say "nah-ha, you're traditional, only self defense" because they're going to take their gi and go to another dojo, with another sensei. I prefer to do the hard work so I can train my students on both things, than to let another school take them (and their monthly fee, he he he). I guess I'm trying to say that the competition can complete us, not only take away something sacred for us.
  • elC
    I'm not a fan of these non-contact martial arts competitions. So wanna make karate olympic? Then use MMA rules! Or at least these "Pro Karate" rules. IMO, everything else is meh. And kata competitions? Please, don't.
    • Gerry
      ...what he (elC) said... I know nothing of the WKF, or karate competition in general, but if sport karate is to be added to the Olympics then at least allow contact. Kata should be left out completely since, to me, it's too subjective on who's kata is better.
      • Trograin
        WKF is afraid of contact, it might hurt you, did you not know? :D This is why I say Ipon Shobun, hell, put in three point system with full contact if one point is not enough :D but let it be contact sport at least, Protective gear, sure, gloves, mouthpiece and ankle gear, nothing else. skip the dam body armor thoughts, getting nervous every time I watch that stuff. It somehow does not fit well with my thoughts of Karate... at all :(
        • Luis
          I guess that's how they do it over there on Japan, at least the JKA
          • boban alempijevic
            Lets ask Jesse, if that is true then I don't have anything else to do here in Europe, I need to move to Japan ONLY because of that reason ( Lets not talk about my Japan crush since age of 10 and wish to be reborn as Japanese :D )
  • Marcilio
    Just because some people are going olympics, that doesn't mean that all of karate knowledge in self-defence will shrink. The fact that karate is becoming an olympic sport should haste our efforts to systemize all of karate knowledge in a more cohesive way, so that it does not vanish in the all for the golden medals!
    • Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo
  • Charlie
    For what it is worth I am in favour of karate becoming an Olympic sport...but *takes deep breath*... ...I hope it is being thought through. If you look at one of the most exciting contact sports in the Olympics it has to be boxing. Fighters go hell-for-leather for 3 rounds and the winner is judged the person with the top score. On the flip side, we have Olympicization of TKW with ippon scoring. It's the way the sport is scored that reduces the excitement, in my eyes. So for Karate kumite to be Olympic, it has to be scored irikumi (continuous), with all the contact and knockdowns that we all know and love. Otherwise it will just become a game of touch. As for kata - you need only look at Antonio Diaz or Lucas Valdesi and see that they are Olympian in approach to our art, so why not show them, and future kata champions, off to the world. What they do is breathtaking - just what the Olympics needs. They apply themselves with tireless dedication to perfectly execute a series of movements. It just makes it even more awe inspiring to know that these movements are rooted in self-defence and attack. Kata competition has the right to be mentioned in the same Olympic breath as gymnastics and diving, for example. It's a really interesting debate I've loved reading everyone's comments. And I'm sure the debate will rage on and on...in the meantime, we'll all keep practising our art. Our passion. Our karate. Over and out.

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