Dubai: Antonio Espinos Ortueta is no stranger to challenges. After being at the helm of the World Karate Federation (WKF) for nearly a decade and a half, the 65-year-old Spaniard has targeted getting karate into the Olympics when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) meets in May this year. But that is not the only thing on Ortueta’s mind as he formulates his plans to make karate even more palatable and popular in the world of sport. And it’s clear that Dubai and the UAE are a huge part of these plans.
GULF NEWS: How do you assess the popularity of karate?
ANTONIO ESPINOS ORTUETA: Karate has been a universal sport in the world for many, many years now. It is by far the most popular of combat sports. Karate is everywhere on all five continents and this is one of our big assets. The World Karate Federation (WKF) has been expanding since then. From 171 member countries when I took over in 1998, it now stands at 185 nations. And we are proud that there has been no lapse in the popularity of our sport.
Q. What sort of role does a championship like the 2nd Dubai International Karate Championship play in the development of this sport?
A. I’ve always been saying that karate is such an active sport worldwide that, if I was to attend all competitions I am invited to around the world, then I would have to be in 50 places on one weekend! This competition is very important as it allows the fighters from the Middle East to converge for some tough contests against other karate powers, particularly from Europe.
This year, Dubai will host the Asian Karate Championships, and so this competition gains even more prominence for the countries of the region. The UAE Karate and Taekwondo Federation (UAEKTF) is so active and this can only be good for the development of the sport. In particular, I appreciate the initiative of the federation in inviting referees from outside to judge, and this can only give a certain level to the tournament and help the growth of karate.
In addition, there are presidents and top officials from so many countries from around the world, and this allows us an opportunity to meet and discuss what steps we can possibly take for the good of this sport. For me to be here is also a very good opportunity, as it gives me the possibility of learning and networking with so many people at the same time.
Q. Do you have any specific plans for the UAE?
A. Yes, not only on a sporting level, but on a political level as well, as in this area we have some very outstanding members of our karate family. Our ultimate objective is for countries such as the UAE to have the possibility of participating in top-class competitions such as the World Karate Championships. And I am confident that through this work that the UAEKTF and the Dubai Sports Council are, doing we will soon have at least a few sportspersons from the country at the World Karate Championships in the future.
Q. What steps are being taken by the WKF to ensure the steady development of the sport worldwide?
A. We have our World Karate Championships as the pinnacle and nothing will change as far as this goes. Since the past two years we have been having the Premier League that is an event with prize money. This year it is our plan to have eight tournaments in the Premier League while continuing with the various lower-level World Cup competitions that give lesser points to competitors in the general rankings. I think we have done enough to promote the World Karate Championships over a period of time, and the recent competition held in Paris [two months ago] was telecast live to more than 120 countries.
In addition to this, we have another initiative in mind that will be called the ‘Challenge 8’ series. This competition will be open to the top eight karatekas worldwide in kumite [one of the three sections of karate training] and there will be just three such competitions during a calendar year. This competition is being discussed and we should have some news about this once we find a title sponsor.
Q. Considering all this popularity, would you think it is a bit unfair that karate is still not an Olympic sport? What are your challenges in this respect?
A. In the first place, I wouldn’t use the word unfair as it is not a very positive word. But we do have hope as karate is one of the candidate sports in the presentation made before the IOC in December 2012. Among the things we put forward in our presentation before the IOC was the finding of a special study that was conducted during the course of the 2012 London Olympic Games. Spectators at the Olympic Park were asked the simple question of whether karate is an Olympic sport and an astonishing 68.3 per cent of people said that Karate is already an Olympic sport! The people were of course told that karate is still not an Olympic sport and to this their popular question was, “Why not?”
At the end of the day, the fact is that karate is not yet an Olympic sport and we have to fight to show that it deserves to be an Olympic sport.
I cannot tell you about the past simply because I was not there. We had an opportunity in the 1990s to be part of the Olympics, but we lost the opportunity. Today is very difficult to get in as there is no space for another sport besides the 28 existing sports as per the Olympic Charter.
So now the current process is that one of the sports from this list of 28 needs to go out and be replaced with a new sport at the next Olympics. To take one out is very difficult today as compared to the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Q. As President, what do you dream of?
A. My dream is to have karate as an Olympic sport, and this has been my goal ever since I got elected as president of the WKF. Such a move would be the catalyst to help improve values and benefits that karate could bring to our youth through participation in Olympic Games. It is not just competing in a big competition every four years that counts, but more about getting recognition in a sports set-up of a nation. Karate in many countries gets nothing by way of funding, but we do know that millions of children can be taken off the streets through karate.
A. With a decision likely to be taken by May this year, what would be your assessment of making it to the Olympic Games?
A. I think there is hope for us. In less than two weeks [on February 15], the IOC will propose one sport out of the Olympic Charter and at the end of May it will propose one sport in. I don’t want to speculate which sport will be in and which one will be out, but I only know that if there is a vacant slot, then karate has a big chance of making it to the Olympics.