Whether the story is of success or failure, mainstream sports like cricket, football, hockey and to a lesser extent shooting, swimming and other disciplines always hit the headlines. Meanwhile, self-defence sports like karate have generally failed to draw the attention of the country’s media, despite regular domestic competitions and participation in international events.
There has recently been a blip in that trend as karate hit headlines following the remarkable success in the ongoing South Asian (SA) Games in Nepal, where the nation’s karatekas grabbed three gold, three silver and 12 bronze medals, bringing glory for a sporting culture that has arguably not been in a good state.
Karate is a major part of the martial arts, which feature disciplines like judo, karate, taekwondo and wushu -- four indigenous self-defence disciplines that originated in Japan, South Korea and China. These sports have separate sets of rules and regulations. Martial arts are widely practised all over Bangladesh in a bid to learn techniques of self-defence but these disciplines are also sporting endeavours with Judo and Taekwondo being featured in the Olympic Games, while Karate and Wushu are played in the regional multi-sports extravaganzas under the Regional Olympic Committees.
All four formats are practised in Bangladesh under separate national federations but karate has made a special place in country’s sports after its latest success in Nepal, which has come nine years after its biggest triumph in the 11th edition of the SA Games held in Dhaka in 2010. The national karatekas grabbed four out of 18 gold in 2010. Since karate debuted in the regional multi-sports extravaganza in 1999 in Nepal, Bangladeshi karatekas have so far grabbed seven gold, nine silver and 30 bronze medals in five meets.
Early days and popularity
Karate started its journey in Bangladesh in 1972 along with Judo under the banner of the Bangladesh Judo and Karate Federation before being separated in 2001, thanks to the initiative of the then president, and Lieutenant General (retd) Harun-Ar-Rashid. In the early days of Bangladesh’s martial arts, judo received more attention because of its status as an as Olympic sport. Martial arts also attracted the attention of people in Bangladesh following Hong Kong’s kung fu based movie ‘Chinese Boxer’ (1970).
Later, many more such kung fu movies saw further increase in popularity and Bangla action movies starring actors Sohel Rana, Jahangir Alam, Masum Parvez Rubel and others took the interest in martial arts to new heights in Bangladesh. That interest still persists with scenes of martial arts classes being conducted in the early morning remaining a common site in different parks of districts across the country.
However, the progress of karate did not quite match the popularity as the first National Karate Championships were held in 1982, 10 years after its formal introduction to the country. National school karate championships were also held for a few editions. Since the introduction of the National Karate Championships in the early 80s, Japanese coaches under the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) project got involved and remained till the early 2000s.
“Karate is still not an Olympic discipline because of its four different playing rules. Perhaps, it is a major reason behind the less attention and success,” said M Abdul Quadir, former acting general secretary of the Judo and Karate Federation. “Besides, a conflict among the officials in 1979 was a huge blow for the discipline. Later, a new committee was formed in 1981 with the help of the then general secretary AKM Mosharraf Hossain, who paved the way to bring Japanese coaches through the JICA project in 1982 and the discipline got back on the right track.”
Quadir also informed that JICA eventually stopped providing coaches and the progress of karate was halted before it started afresh in the late 2000s.
Current state and barriers
Karate had been the top gold-hauling discipline in the 2010 SA Games but the game of karate got stuck afterwards with a new committee led by political leader-cum-organiser Ali Ahsan Badal taking over in 2014 till April, 2018 before the new committee, led by Bandarban Hill District Chairman and former karateka Kyaw Shwe Hla, took over from March 2018.
With karate not part of the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games, and with the biennial SA Games not held regularly, the discipline struggled to attract the athletes’ attention through a couple of yearly domestic meets. Besides, the dark and damp environment at the National Sports Council’s old gymnasium -- which is utilised by karate, taekwondo, judo and gymnastics -- is not the most attractive venue for budding athletes to further their skills.
“At the moment, we have a good number of quality practitioners who are older and participating in the same weight category, but we need more new players to match other weight categories if we want to get more success at the international level,” said Bangladesh Karate Federation vice-president and former karateka Moazzem Hossain Sentu.
“Women karatekas have good potential in Bangladesh because they are intelligent but they drop out after marriage,” said Japanese coach-cum-advisor Tetsuro Kitamura, who first coached Bangladesh from 1985 to 1987 and then from 2000 to 2004.
Pointing to the financial crisis, former karateka MA Quadir said that there is a lack of qualified coaches in karate that is a barrier to development.
Potential and future action
Disciplines like shooting and swimming had once been prime gold-hauling ones for Bangladesh in the regional multi-sport extravaganza, but both are at present in a poor state, yielding one or two gold medals in each edition.
All four gold medals Bangladesh grabbed in the ongoing SA Games till yesterday came from martial arts -- karate (three gold) and taekwondo (one gold) -- with athletes delivering gold medals in their SA Games debuts.
Nevertheless, martial arts disciplines, especially karate, can be a prime gold-hauler for Bangladesh in the future if proper attention and facilities are provided to karatekas, who can also bring glory from Asian Games -- the second-biggest multi-sports games after Olympics in terms of standards. Karateka Humaira Akter Antara took up karate just three years ago and stunned all to win a surprise gold medal in Nepal and it is evident that an athlete can be ready within a short period if he or she is given proper and effective training.
BKF general secretary Kyaw Shwe Hla informed that the success came because of good training, which they started a year ago -- six months before the start of official training for SA Games -- and sent the team to participate in international tournaments in Tajikistan, India, Cambodia before providing the karatekas a 12 days of training and matches in Malaysia. He also added that they held the SA Karate Championship in Dhaka before heading to Nepal.
“We don’t have our own venue where we can provide uninterrupted training to karatekas. So, it is our earnest request to the authority concerned to provide an independent place. I think it is important to have training on new mats before the Games, because we missed out on the gold medal in Nepal because our players slipped on a new mat and lost points,” said Kyaw Shwe Hla.
Tetsuro Kitamura said: “To realise the dream, Bangladesh needs to have a long-term plan to groom athletes as well as bring changes in food habit, which Nepal has done. I believe athletes have to be sent abroad for international tournaments and training instead of having only domestic competitions. To get something big, you have to sacrifice some small things, because Bangladesh have good potential in karate.”
“As team sports are gradually going to become expensive day by day, we should now emphasise on individual disciplines, especially for any Games because gold medals for a team sport and individual sport are equal,” said MA Quadir. “You can see a lot of kids practising martial arts at the Dhanmondi Women’s Sports Complex by paying and the respective federation should inspire their parents to continue it and bring them into the mainstream.”
Quadir believed that if the NSC plays a good role to accommodate the dedicated organisers, irrespective of their political identity, in the executive committees of national federations, individual martial arts disciplines can be a good source of gold from future Games.
And finally, the media will have to play a good role to promote and make karate popular among the new generation by giving fair coverage to this successful discipline.