• Kyodo

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After winning Japan’s first gold medal in karate, Ryo Kiyuna said Saturday the sport’s debut at the Tokyo Games was a big step forward in introducing it to the world and believes one day it will return to the Olympic program.

A day after capturing the men’s kata title, Kiyuna told a news conference he was excited to have competed in karate’s Olympic debut, but he knew the Games were different from any other tournament because of the attention he would receive.

“By participating in the Tokyo Olympics, I noticed (the Olympics) are wonderful,” said Kiyuna, who is a native of Okinawa Prefecture, where karate originated.

“We showed that the tradition of Okinawa has spread and there are karate athletes around the world,” he said, adding that the athletes “made history” by promoting the sport to a wide audience at the Tokyo Games.

The combat sport is said to have originated in Okinawa during a 450-year period from 1429 under the Ryukyu Kingdom. There are now over 130 million practitioners, according to the World Karate Federation, and it is also popular in Europe.

Students of the Kenkojuku Budokan karate school in Hachioji, western Tokyo, watch Japan's Ryo Kiyuna perform in the men's kata final on Friday. | AFP-JIJI
Students of the Kenkojuku Budokan karate school in Hachioji, western Tokyo, watch Japan’s Ryo Kiyuna perform in the men’s kata final on Friday. | AFP-JIJI

But karate will not be part of the 2024 Paris Olympics and it remains uncertain what sports will be added in Los Angeles in 2028 and Brisbane in 2032, making Kiyuna’s gold even more special.

During Friday’s final, Kiyuna scored 28.72 points out of 30 for his performance to beat Spain’s Damian Quintero by 1.06 points at Nippon Budokan, the spiritual home of Japanese martial arts.

After the judge announced him as the winner, Kiyuna moved to the center of the tatami mat, sat quietly and bowed.

The 31-year-old brought a photograph of his late mother to the victory ceremony. His mother, who had dreamed of her son winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics, died in 2019 at the age of 57.

“She had supported me so much since I was very young so I wanted her to see what the view was like at the Olympics,” Kiyuna said after the ceremony. “I want her to know that I have kept our promise (of winning gold) so she can be at ease.”

Kiyuna took up the sport at the age of 5 and has trained under his mentor Tsuguo Sakumoto, a karate legend, at his dojo in Okinawa since his final year in junior high school.

Ryo Kiyuna brought a photograph of his late mother to the victory ceremony. His mother, who had dreamed of her son winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics, died in 2019 at the age of 57. | AFP-JIJI
Ryo Kiyuna brought a photograph of his late mother to the victory ceremony. His mother, who had dreamed of her son winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics, died in 2019 at the age of 57. | AFP-JIJI

He has not taken a single day off from karate in roughly 15 years. Because his mentor is so strict, he said he feels more nervous performing his kata in front of Sakumoto during training than competing at the Olympics.

Kata is a series of choreographed defensive and offensive movements that target a non-existent opponent. Athletes are scored based on their technique, strength and speed.

Kiyuna, the reigning three-time world champion, has not lost a single tournament since February 2018.

“He is a great athlete and he is a great person,” Quintero said Friday evening through an interpreter.

“He has something very special that you can see on the tatami. The whole stadium is captured and definitely the attention is on him.”

While Kiyuna did not realize his goal of winning gold with a perfect 30 points, he said he wanted his performance to send a message to children in Okinawa to dream big.

“I’ve been working very hard toward this goal without giving up, so I hope people were able to see that it is possible to achieve their (goals) if they continue putting an effort into it,” he said.

“I would be very glad if my win has inspired kids in Okinawa to have dreams and hope.”

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