Kiado-Ryu Karate

Jul 19, 2021 - Feature of the Week

What's Wrong with Tournament Karate?

History Prenote

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the Karate Institute of America was extremely involved in tournament competition on a local, state, regional and national level. Its competitors were highly successful in all areas of martial arts competition, winning hundreds of championships, which included four national championships. Yet, karate competition never made it into the big time. Why? The reason for such failure, as history has proven, is explained by Kiado-Ryu Grand Master Richard Andrew King in the following article: What’s Wrong With Tournament Karate, submitted to, accepted, and published by Black Belt Magazine in July of 1990.

What’s Wrong With Tournament Karate?

The Reasons Why Martial Arts is Not a Big-Time Sport

Richard Andrew King, Grandmaster, Karate Institute of America

Published: Black Belt Magazine, July 1990

Competition has been around since man first inhabited the earth. Human beings love a contest and, by nature, want to know who the best is in a given sport. Billions of dollars are spent annually on a worldwide basis to support a multitude of athletic events: football, baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey, track, tennis, ice skating, gymnastics, swimming, etc.

But where is karate as a recognized sport? Martial arts events seldom, if ever, make the local newspaper, let alone find their way into the world sports consciousness. Why, after more than 30 years in the United States, hasn’t karate gained recognition as a viable sport? What, exactly, is wrong with tournament karate today?

Karate is certainly an exciting sport to watch. With its variety of divisions—sparring, empty-hand forms, weapons forms, musical forms, etc.—martial arts competitions offer a plethora of excitement and have something for everybody. Yet, tournament karate does not draw large numbers of spectators, and the majority of those who do attend are either friends or relatives of the competitors. What is holding people back?

As puzzling as the situation appears from the “outside,” it is painfully clear from the “inside” what is wrong with tournament karate. As any martial artist who has ever competed at an open karate tournament knows, the answer is: a lack of professionalism.

A Closer Look

Professionalism is easy to talk about but not so easy to demonstrate. It takes concerted effort and dedication to a specific code of behavior to be a professional, and simply calling oneself a pro doesn’t make it so. Karate has yet to become a viable, substantial, popular sport. It is not a lack of quality competitors that has kept sport karate from flourishing, but rather a lack of professionalism.

Professionalism is composed of three main ingredients: knowledge, integrity, and service. These three ingredients are the basis of success in any endeavor. They have not, as yet, found their way into the mainstream of martial arts competition, which accounts for the dismal reputation of open karate tournaments. However, if and when these three aspects of knowledge, integrity and service are incorporated into the tournament scene, there could be an explosion of interest in competitive martial arts on a worldwide basis. If these “success attributes” are never inculcated, karate will continue to remain bogged down in a mire of its own making, a nonentity in the world of sports.


The first ingredient in professionalism, although not the most important, is knowledge. A professional must know his subject thoroughly. Knowledge is acquired through study, experience and testing. The weakest of all links in tournament karate today are the judges, referees and arbitrators. They are ill-trained at best, and definitely lack an understanding of rules and their implementation, the final responsibility for which rests wholly with the tournament promoter.

Because karate competition is judged subjectively (by personal opinion), it is unconditionally requisite that the officials know their art well, know the tournament rules and uphold them, and overall, know precisely what they are doing. The overwhelming number of officials make decisions based on what they like, what their emotions tell them, what the public wants or what they are “expected to do” from a political standpoint, rather than basing their decisions according to a set of rules.

Part of the reason for incompetent judging is found in the way officials are chosen. The current process at most open tournaments is to ask for black belt volunteers to judge an event. Conceivably, any John Doe can purchase a black belt, put it on, go to a tournament and judge. No one checks his credentials, questions his experience, expertise or ethics. This is why, time and time again, competitors and spectators alike are left shaking their heads in disbelief as to the final outcome of an event. Competitors often walk away mumbling, “Who are those guys?” and never again return to an environment they find unfair and incompetent.


Integrity—honesty—is the most important criterion of the professional. In tournament karate today, however, integrity is, beyond question, the most violated of the three professional ingredients.

Karate is an art which, in its purest form, teaches integrity, honor, dignity, respect and reverence for all people, for the martial arts, and for its practitioners. Yet, the high and noble ideals which karate intrinsically professes and teaches do not exist in sufficient quantity among tournament promoters and officials to make karate worthy as a true national and global sport.

How often have parents, friends, associates and even teachers sat on judging panels to insure that their child, friend or student wins? How often have judging decisions been made not on the basis of performance, as they should be, but on the basis of political, social, geographic, financial or racial status? How often have final decisions been made before an event ever began? How often have rules been violated? How often have the intrinsic rights of a competitor for “fair play” been overlooked and ignored on the basis of some financial gain to the promoter? How often have promoters stood by and watched discrepancies occur? How often have they been a party to such actions? How often has the highest and best good of the martial arts—not that of specific individuals or groups—been served? How often have spectators walked out of karate tournaments because of the ridiculousness of it all? And, last and most importantly, how often have honorable and sincere competitors—the lifeblood of sport karate—left a tournament or the tournament scene entirely because of what they consider poor treatment?

Promoters and officials must have integrity. While ignorance may be excusable, dishonesty is not. All a person really possesses is his good name and the principles he stands for. Once they are gone, all is gone. Nothing can grow, let alone flourish, in an environment saturated with dishonesty.


Edgar Guest, the famous American poet, is quoted as saying: “Let us care more for serving than winning.” How right he is! Service, not victory, should be the primary and undying focus of every karate tournament promoter and official. It is the “highest and best good” of the martial arts which must be served if tournament karate is to be successful, not the selfish, self-centered and myopic special interests of specific individuals or groups. The art and its welfare must come first, and money second, if the art is to survive.

This scenario, as true and sad as it is, is common and consistent, and has been so for decades. Why should legitimate competitors train hard for months, even years, expending huge amounts of time, effort, sweat, blood and money to participate in an event where they are not given a fair and competent chance to test their skills? The answer is that they shouldn’t and don’t. This is one reason why sport karate has not made it into the “big time” and never will until fair play and competent officiating are established and maintained. Thousands of competitors will continue to leave tournament karate until the sport achieves ethical and professional maturity.

Another reason for incompetent judging is that karate tournaments currently lack structured standards by which competitors are judged. Such standards are absolutely necessary if events are to be judged professionally. Competitors need a set of criteria to conform to so they know what is and is not expected of them, and judges need standards to establish accepted norms for their decision making. Currently, if 1,000 officials are asked to judge a forms division, the result would most likely be 1,000 different scores—even if the officials are honest and ethical. Until a uniform set of standards is established and utilized, tournament karate cannot possibly grow. Too many factions, too many different ideas create disunity and, subsequently, dysfunction. Tournament karate needs to standardize and organize if it is to gain acceptability and recognition. Success will follow.

“Take care of the people that take care of you and you will be successful” is an old and true adage. Competitors and spectators make sport karate happen because without them there could be no tournament. Promoters and judges must serve them. If they insure that competitors are guaranteed fair play and judged by competent ethical officials, success will follow.

The lack of knowledge, integrity and service is the main reason karate tournaments are not successful in the main. Success is not defined by how much money a tournament makes or what special interests are served, but rather by the feelings and good will of those in attendance. Knowledge, integrity and service are the basis of professionalism, and if martial arts tournaments are to grow to a truly national and global level, they must fully embrace these three qualities or forever remain in obscurity and confusion.

About the Author: Lake Forest, California-based Richard Andrew King is a former tournament champion and is president of the Karate Institute of America.