Olympic Observations

Martial Artist Hayward Nishioka
Thomas Sanders

3 Martial Arts Legends Sound Off on Judo, Taekwondo and Karate!

The 2020 Olympiad, held in 2021 because of COVID-19, marked the debut of the third martial art in the Games. (We know — boxing, wrestling, shooting, fencing and so on are also martial arts, but we’re limiting this discussion to sports derived from Asian arts of self-defense.) If you’re a fan of the Olympics, you probably watched the judo, taekwondo and karate competition already. For that reason, we’re not going to cover it here. Instead, we’re serving up commentary from three experts who have strong opinions on what took place in Tokyo.— Editors

Bill WallacePhoto by Brandon Snider

Olympic Martial Arts: Karate and Judo
Expert: Bill Wallace
Qualifications: Undefeated full-contact karate champion, judoka, three-time Black Belt Hall of Famer
Author: Floyd Burk
Unbeknownst to many, Bill Wallace has a black belt in judo in addition to karate. His judo roots stretch back to the 1960s when he served in the U.S. Air Force — which happens to be around the same time judo debuted as an Olympic event. At one point in his life, Wallace had hopes of making it into the Games. “I was thinking maybe I could be on America’s Olympic judo team because I’m pretty good at it,” he recalled. “I made the middleweight finals at the Air Force Team Championship in 1964. I was chosen to be on the team. Those hopes ended when I tore up my knee.”

So what did Wallace think of the judo competition that the world witnessed at the 2020 Olympics? “In my opinion, they’ve made it way too technical,” he said. “Back when I was competing, we bowed in, then took our grip. Although you didn’t let him have it, you might be tussled around for 15 to 30 seconds to get it, then you went at it, doing throws and takedowns and mat work. Now, these guys in the five-minute matches spend four and a half of those minutes just trying to get their grip on their opponent.“

Half the time, they can’t get the grip, so they try a throw just for the heck of it. Or when they do get the grip, nothing happens. Many can’t throw their opponent and wind up scoring by almost off-balancing the [person]. What’s ‘almost off-balancing’?! Either they’re off-balance or they’re not.“

At least in wrestling, my first love, the rules are more cut and dried. You do this and you win. You put a guy on his back and you win. But in judo, half of it’s just tugging around, jerking on sleeves and lapels.

“Another problem is the way judo guys get into this defensive posture, where they’re like, ‘I’m so low to the ground that you can’t throw me,’ and the other guy is saying the same thing. They just push each other around, and no one attempts a throw until the last half minute or less. It’s become so technical that there’s no excitement to it. At least in [Olympic] karate, they’re throwing techniques at each other.”

Speaking of karate, it created quite a buzz in its Olympic debut, Wallace noted. When I spoke with him before the Games, he was optimistic because the debut would be, fittingly, in Japan and because it was going to be traditional. “Superfoot” figured the sparring would be strong and the kata would boost the overall image of the art. The next time we spoke, he said he worried that a karate fighter might nail his opponent with a clear winning shot but then get disqualified, leaving spectators wondering what just happened.

Who knew Bill Wallace was prescient?

“I watched it, and it really pissed me off — I’m still upset about it,” he said. “It turned out just like I said it might!”

He was referring, of course, to the final of the 75-kilogram-and-over division between a Saudi karateka named Tareg Hamedi and an Iranian karateka named Sajjad Ganjzadeh. “They showed excerpts from some of the early fights, and I liked it — it looked good, but that gold-medal fight ruined it,” Wallace said. “Imagine this: You and I are fighters in the gold-medal round. You throw a kick at my face and knock me out, and because you knock me out, you lose and I get the gold medal. Can you imagine what the guy has to tell his friends or his wife? ‘I got knocked out, and I’m the gold-medal winner.’

“Someone says to you, ‘Hey, you won the gold medal,’ and you say, ‘Yeah, I got knocked out.’”

If karate is featured in the Olympics again, things will have to change, Wallace said. “They need to be allowed to have more contact. They’re wearing hand pads anyway, which is not traditional, so why not let them wear the headgear and lightweight boxing gloves? You can still see the reverse punches and the lunge punches. Let them hit each other. Let those good head kicks count. [In] karate, a big part of it is you have to be able to take it. We hit the makiwara and get struck on the arms and legs with the bamboo shinai by our sensei. We do all this stuff so we can fight and take what’s thrown at us.”

Wallace also discussed the Olympic kata competition. “I do like the kata — it’s good for the aesthetic aspect of karate,” he said. “I think the kata show the beauty and precision with technique and graceful movement. However, when people are punching and kicking into the air, the commentators need to do a better job and be more accurate explaining what the applications of the techniques are. Commentators play a vital role in keeping the attention of the audience.”

Hayward Nishioka Photo by Thomas Sanders

Olympic Martial Art: Judo
Expert: Hayward Nishioka
Qualifications: 1967 Pan-American Games gold medalist, two-time Black Belt Hall of Famer
Author: Hayward Nishioka
After the Olympics, a judo old-timer who started training in the 1980s said this to me: “What did we see at the Olympics? Judo is judo. They’re still doing the same old techniques: osoto gari, seoinage, ouchi gari, pins, chokes, armbars. …”Yes, that’s true. However, to the trained eye, it’s what you don’t see that determines the winners and losers. What you don’t see (WYDS) is that Olympic judo is a faster game. Contestants have to try a technique every 20 to 30 seconds.

WYDS is the grip-fighting techniques that happen in seconds. Once a grip is secure, it takes only seconds before there’s an attack. It’s touch-and-go judo.

Sure, the techniques are the same. It’s the setups that have changed. Once you were allowed to grip the sleeve end. Then, because that prevented your opponent from having a chance to attack, it was disallowed. Now it’s back with a vengeance, as long as it’s not just for defense.

WYDS is that counters to even counterattacks have increased in number and in complexity.

WYDS are the miles of cardio training that took place before the Olympics, along with all the anaerobic drilling designed to prepare the body to continuously attack into overtime.

WYDS is the training and coaching study groups that go on. It’s like football, where you spend time watching and analyzing films of your opponents.

Often, it’s the arrow that hits the bull’s-eye that gets all the attention. The archer’s bow is the mechanism that makes it possible, but it’s seldom mentioned. However, in order to understand the arrow’s ability to hit a distant target, you have to know the strength of the bow. In judo, there are five bows: the Asian, European, Pan-American, Oceanic and African judo unions. Of the countries that are successful in Olympic judo, Japan is at the forefront. The homeland of judo, it has always dominated Olympic judo, starting in 1964 when it won three out of the four golds (75 percent) that were up for grabs. At the 2020 Olympics, Japan won nine out of 14 golds (64 percent). It’s a lower percentage, but it’s still impressive.

Now for WYDS: When it comes to winning medals, Europe is gaining on Asia. Georgia, Kosovo, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Italy, Ukraine, Belgium, Portugal, Hungary, Great Britain, Netherlands, Czech Republic — they’re all part of the European Judo Union and won at least a bronze in Tokyo. When you add France’s eight medals, this makes Europe a judo powerhouse that rivals Asia (Japan, Korea, Mongolia and other countries).The reason the Europeans are becoming a force to contend with stems in part from the fact that many of the countries are contiguous and hold tournaments almost monthly — just hours away from each other by car or rail. It would be like someone in California going to Nevada for a regional championship and then to Oregon for a national championship the following month. It provides an unparalleled opportunity to train with the best of the best, which points out what you need to improve. If your coach is there with you, even better!

WYDS is any of our judoka engaging in the activities that the European Judo Union organizes to help its players. USA Judo, our national governing body, needs to be facilitating this.

WYDS is a bronze, silver or gold medal for any of the four martial artists who represented USA Judo in Tokyo. For its $750,000 a year for the past four years, which was USA Judo’s budget, the U.S. Olympic Committee was repaid with one bye and four “did not advance” determinations.

What you did see is a host of countries that are smaller than the USA — Mongolia, Kosovo, Brazil, Georgia, Austria and others — each winning at least two Olympic medals. We have to ask ourselves why.

Photo by Brandon Snider

Olympic Martial Art: Taekwondo
Expert: Herb Perez
Qualifications: Taekwondo gold medalist at the 1992 Olympics, Black Belt Hall of Famer
Author: Herb Perez

The challenges of the past year did not stop the greatest show on earth from occurring. The 2020 Olympic Games were held in Tokyo one year after they were supposed to take place, with the world’s best athletes vying for gold. In its eighth Olympic appearance, taekwondo did not meet those expectations. In fact, the martial sport has been on a steady decline with respect to technique, philosophy and viewership. It no longer resembles the dynamic full-contact sport that debuted in Seoul in 1988.Even more notable is that Korea did not win a single gold medal in taekwondo at these Games. The irony of this is not lost on those closest to the rings. Korea created the problems that led to the current version of the sport and now has fallen victim to its poor attempts at a solution.

Growing up in the inner city, I — along with my friends — would test ourselves with the occasional slap-boxing contest. This was basically a game that relied on speed as demonstrated by our use of our open hands to lightly strike an opponent’s face. Fortunately, I had an abundance of speed and extremely long ape-like arms, which made me virtually unbeatable. At some point, I ventured into a real boxing gym and realized that my neighborhood “world title” and skill set had no connection with the reality of a boxing arena in which a sparring partner used power, speed and strategy to render a person unconscious.

I mention this experience to illustrate the challenges with the current format of Olympic taekwondo, which now resembles slap boxing more than it does a full-contact sport. It’s become an inside joke among true sportspeople, and the leadership of World Taekwondo (formerly World Taekwondo Federation) does not realize this.

Intent: Taekwondo buttressed its competition format on the premise that it was a fighting art that could not be contested without adequate protection. The chest protector would shield the body from the full-power techniques while the head was left unprotected and knockouts were permitted. Over the years, they added protection for the arms and shins and headgear to guard the brain. It was argued that taekwondo was a full-contact martial art and that to demonstrate its beauty, it needed to be done in a full-contact manner.

Perhaps more important is that once you designate taekwondo a full-contact martial sport/art, it becomes based on a different strategic framework with interdependent outcomes. To strike someone with enough power to score a point, you need physical commitment, and that puts you at risk. The techniques that score points leave the door open for counterattacks that are equally fast and powerful and that give the opponent an opportunity to inflict damage or a knockout.

Cost: Olympic inclusion came with a price. Taekwondo’s competition format needed to adapt to the safety concerns expressed by the International Olympic Committee. This meant an increase in equipment to make the sport more palatable for the Olympic community.

The problem was easy to recognize and identify. The leadership allowed cheating and manipulation in Korea and exported that practice to the United States and other countries. This has been well-documented. It quickly became a worldwide issue with taekwondo’s inclusion in the Olympics.

In the Olympic arena — even with more spectators and IOC members watching — the practice continued. In 2008 after a public outcry, there was an immediate call for action to correct this practice.

The fact was referees were not capable of scoring the modern game. With the existing system, the referees could not watch the action and score it at the same time. This required a great amount of intellectual capacity for strategy and outcome, as well as dexterity to push buttons to score the techniques in real time. Simply stated, the proficiency of the athletes surpassed the ability of the referees to score the match.

Finally, there was no adequate process by which to review, correct or discipline referees who were incapable or underqualified. Any attempt to hold them accountable was not supported by the leadership and vigorously fought by the undertrained referee cadre.

Failure: The original scoring system was done with paper that was handed in by corner referees at the end of each round. The tabulation was conducted by the head referee at a jury table. There was no way to connect the score on the paper with the scoring event in the match. Often, the head referee would simply change the outcome if the player he or she wanted to win didn’t win on paper.

This was followed by various iterations of electronic scoring, including pushing buttons connected to a central terminal so points could be awarded in real time based on the actions of a majority of referees. While better, it still had problems and allowed for coercion.

In 2005 Steven Capener, Ph.D., and I — along with others on the WTF Technical Committee — created a multitiered scoring system that awarded higher difficulty techniques with more points. The idea was that the types of techniques you wanted to see would receive higher point values. For example, a single round kick to the body would get one point, a kick with a turn an additional point and a face kick even more points. We wanted to reward proficiency and difficulty while creating a scoring system that valued the strategic format of our sport.

Finally, there was a proposal to have a system that would score points electronically based on contact of a foot on a chest protector, which meant there would be no referee review of scored points. This became the current system — and it’s led to the lackluster version of the martial sport we now have.

Solution: It’s easily implemented, but it requires several steps that will immediately change the dynamic of the game and increase the level of technical proficiency required to participate in the Olympics.

First, the electronic scoring system must be eliminated. It does not serve a purpose because it cannot adequately determine technique and/or proper execution. For example, the current system scores a hooking motion with the bottom of the foot making contact with the body, a move that has no practical use in sport or martial arts.

Second, the training protocols must be re-evaluated so referees can participate in the new scoring system. The system can be similar to that of boxing or the 10-point must system. The idea is that a sport based on a martial art that values honesty and integrity must start with the judging of the sport. Referees should be held to the same standards as the athletes and the people who practice the sport. If a referee is found to be incompetent or dishonest, that referee must be removed or re-educated before he or she can return to the referee pool.

Future improvements in the sport could include a version of electronic scoring that’s not based on a chest protector unless it is of the 2020 armor type, which measures impact and power. If such a chest protector was to be used, more power would generate a higher score and low power would generate a lower score. As the athlete’s power level diminished, just like in a video game, the athlete eventually would lose.

If they elect to return to the system of push-button refereeing from the corners, all the corner referees can indicate what they observed, and then based on the type of point scored, the center table can award the appropriate total. For example, a round kick would result in two points; for a turning kick, it would be an extra point; for a face kick, it would be another extra point and so on. Because this would be done by the referee at the table, it would eliminate the need for the corner referees to do anything other than open a scoring opportunity.

It’s important to note that whether or not the chest protector continues to be used, it certainly does not serve the purpose of protecting the body. One need look no further than current MMA events to see that athletes can withstand the power of physical blows to the body and head with little or no protection. To protect the athletes, however, it might be better to pad the striking implements (hands and feet) and the head rather than the chest. In this way, the body would be protected (by the padded hands or feet) and the head would be protected by the headgear — much like they do in boxing and other martial sports.

In closing, as someone who has practiced this sport and art for 50 years and who has competed and won at the highest levels, I can state with certainty a few final facts. Change is coming because the Koreans in the highest positions are angry. They’re joined by past athletes from across the globe who are also fed up. For once, people are united for a single purpose — albeit for different reasons. The sport is no longer impactful (pun intended), relevant, meaningful, understandable or watchable. More important, Korea can no longer win in its current format.

What shape or form the coming change takes is up to us. It’s time to build a meritocracy of leadership using the brain trust that exists outside Korea. The current system has failed the sport, the art and all of us.

For more thoughts on Olympic karate, see Dave Lowry’s Karate Way column in this issue.

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