- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

When Sport Is an Art

Sport the world over is under suspicion of cheating by doping, or outright fixing, as two tennis umpires have been barred for life and four more are under investigation: track and field, bicycle racing, baseball, and now football, with the saintly Peyton Manning having to deny rumors even as he received his Super Bowl ring. A wise man (my father) once told me that sport is only pure when amateurs compete, otherwise money will eventually corrupt it. I thought he was a bit over the top. Now I know he wasn’t.

What is the difference between an amateur athlete and a pro? Both strive for excellence, the difference being the amateur glories in his effort to reach perfection, the pro sees the goal in financial terms.

Basically, a pro is a mercenary, who sells himself to the highest bidder. A perfect example was Cam Newton shying away from throwing himself on his fumble during the closing moments of the Super Bowl, obviously thinking why hurt yourself in a lost game? Why risk future millions in a losing cause?  An amateur would have dived for the ball, and to hell with the consequences.

Corruption breeds only among professionals. Soccer is called the beautiful game, but it’s also the most corrupt. The billions of dollars involved made it possible for out and out crooks from Africa and the Gulf states to rule the game, which they still do despite the fall from grace of their enabler in chief, Sepp Blatter.


Which brings me to karate, the martial art that has now morphed into a sport, a sport that has given me more pleasure in life than anything, girls and family aside, and not necessarily in that order. Karate began as an ancient Chinese art in self-defense but was perfected by the Japanese following World War II. It teaches respect to one’s teacher above all, as well as to one’s opponents. There is no trash talking, no cheating, definitely no showing off. It is not to be confused with the bar fighting that you now see on television, a so-called sport that goes by the name of mixed martial arts.

Mind you, most of the mixed-martial artists began as karatekas, where they learned to kick and punch and block. There is no wrestling in karate, the point being that a punch or a kick should be lethal enough to end it. This is called kime, or focus. The first time I watched a karate contest I was bowled over. It was the early ’60s, and I saw Japanese masters performing incredible kicks and attacks that were beautiful to watch. It was with ballet-like grace, but violent. I signed up immediately and left for Japan soon afterwards.

What got me hooked for life was the strict discipline and respect that prevailed in the school—dojo—and the manner the sensei—teacher—taught: harshly, but with a soft heart. I broke my hand the first day, had a plaster put on, and was present the following day.

That did it. Unbeknownst to me, the sensei had ordered that no one could rough me up after that. Spirit is paramount in karate, not ability nor toughness.

It’s been a wondrous, beautiful journey ever since. I won the Greek championships many times, competed in European and world championships, and now, about to turn 80 this summer, still train hard and mix it up in dojos both in Europe and New York.

To reach perfection in karate is as difficult as reaching perfection in any sport, with a difference. Perfection in karate has to be aesthetically beautiful as well as effective. In other words, to strike an opponent and render him unconscious but with grace and in perfect unison. No flailing, no wild swinging, just a perfect strike in a vulnerable spot. The essence of the martial art is to accomplish that while respecting one’s adversary, which might sound contradictory, but that’s the beauty of it all.

thisarticleappears [1]Has karate been cheapened, debased, as everything else in this world of ours has? The answer is yes. After karate arrived in the West around 1960, there was suddenly a plethora of Westerners who invented their own style and handed out belts like Frisbees. There was nothing Japanese teachers could do because karate was and remains an amateur sport, and anyone can call himself or herself a master and begin teaching.

There is a catch, of course. Bad teachers do not keep their students for long. I have been studying the same style and under the same teacher for the last 20 years, and with my teacher’s teacher for the 25 years before that. I have yet to reach perfection but continue to try. As does my teacher Richard Amos, and his teacher, Enoeda Sensei, before him.

Taki Theodoracopulos is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "When Sport Is an Art"

#1 Comment By Lee On April 8, 2016 @ 12:53 am

Enjoyed the concepts of the article. I stopped watching professional and college sports decades ago. On rare occasions I might attend a game if invited…

Would much rather channel my energies into physical and athletic endeavors I can reap the health and life enhancing benefits by participating for myself.

After all it didn’the seem rational to look outside of myself for passive entertainment…life should not and cannot be fully lived from the sidelines.

#2 Comment By Kirt Higdon On April 8, 2016 @ 6:56 am

Taki’s example was one thing which inspired me a few years ago to take up karate, despite my rather advanced age. (Thanks, Taki.) I know I’ll never reach his level, but I do have some hopes of getting a black belt in a few more years – if I don’t die first of old age. BTW, my sensei has yet to give a black belt to anyone.

#3 Comment By JS85 On April 8, 2016 @ 7:07 am

Yawn. Amateurism is a Guilded Age concept that was intended to prevent the working classes from playing sports.

“Corruption breeds only among professionals.” Hah. Tell that to the NCAA.

#4 Comment By dennis On April 8, 2016 @ 11:15 am

Even in the so-called “Guilded Age”, Amateurism was a concept often honored in the breach. Hence the well known examples of what came to be known as “shamaetuerism” in many sports – hypocritical homages to the Amateur ideal, all the while taking under the table payments, making money off gambling (often including match and game fixing), etc.

Taki’s ideal is one that never truly existed, but is an ideal to which pseudo-aristocrats like to appeal in order to portray themselves as being morally and spiritually above mere “money grubbing” professionals for whom playing sports is a profession rather than a mere pastime for the idle rich.

#5 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On April 8, 2016 @ 11:17 am

great read, but my sensei would disagree. Karate-do was “perfected” by the Okinawans.

#6 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 8, 2016 @ 11:28 am

“Perfection in karate has to be aesthetically beautiful as well as effective. In other words, to strike an opponent and render him unconscious but with grace and in perfect unison.”

As the result of fairly unequivocal recent medical research on the dangers of concussion in sport, I would hope that no one reading this article would decide to take up a sport the object of which is “to strike an opponent and render him unconscious.”

I’m a huge Taki fan – after all, he’s one of the founders of TAC) — but this article is “Hemingway stuff” and hopefully will not fuel the macho streak in impressionable teens (including a fair number of males through the age of eighty).

#7 Comment By Stephen Fairbanks On April 8, 2016 @ 12:23 pm

It’s difficult to tell what the purpose of this article is. It begins with tales of corruption and cheating, then veers into a cheap (and unwarranted) criticism of Cam Newton’s indecision during a football game, then into a discussion of karate. What does deconstructing an instant of a football game have to do with dedication to one’s teacher?

Is the author’s view that money only corrupts sports? Consider how many other endeavors have amateur/professional distinctions: music, art, literature and one and one. Are the professional versions tainted, by virtue of their association with a “mercenary” mentality?

While I applaud any view that celebrates that quality of amateurs that plays/writes/draws out of love, I am confounded by this article.

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 8, 2016 @ 1:08 pm

No doubt the money game tempts corruption more than amature sports.

But anyone thinks amature sports are devoid of corruption is kidding themselves.

The depths to which amature coaches, athletes, teams, referees and sponsors will to win are limitless. And this is the case among all manner of amature competitions not just sports.

There are national speech competitions in which the cheating is so rife as to make any professional sports finaggling seem amatures.

Amature sports, just don’t get the attention that money breeds.

#9 Comment By Charles On April 8, 2016 @ 4:03 pm

As a student of the martial arts with over twenty years of experience, I take exception to Taki’s characterization of mixed martial arts and grappling. The idea that “ikken hissatsu” (finishing a fight with one well-placed blow) renders the grappling arts unnecessary would be news to every karateka who has gotten his head handed to him by a well-trained judoka. It is also incorrect to say that most MMA fighters began as karateka, seeing as how the UFC was founded by Gracie Jiu Jitsu practitioners. And the idea that MMA is nothing but “bar fighting” is an insult to the years of training that top-level MMA fighters put in to hone their technique.

#10 Comment By Myron Hudson On April 8, 2016 @ 7:19 pm

Well, it’s tempting to be a purist about things so if we go that far, why not further?

The Okinawans imported a martial art from China and developed te, a system of unarmed combat (and a few farming implements) to protect themselves from their Japanese overlords during the golden age when only the trained and privileged were allowed to carry weapons. I studied Okinawan karate myself and would not characterize it as beautiful, but it can be effective. Yes the Japanese adopted it, refined it and stylized it. But one punch one kill is deeply imbedded in Okinawan karate.

I learned from more than one sensei that you can choose from traditional, combat or sport versions of martial arts depending on your inclination. There are differences: what you do on the street for self-defense would get you disqualified from most tournaments. What I’m getting at here is that maybe sport is not the be all and end all of martial arts. Once can just as easily bemoan the sportification of a martial art as the further cheapening of the sport itself.

#11 Comment By Myron Hudson On April 8, 2016 @ 7:24 pm

Charles: you have reminded me that our sensei in New Jersey gave a homework assignment to anyone he thought was getting too uppity. He sent them to the local boxing gym and had them come back and report. Ouch. And he himself would say “I won’t dance with an aikido man”.

And yes MMA draws from Brazilian style ju jitsu and thai boxing, and I would not mess with any of those guys.

#12 Comment By Orthomama On April 9, 2016 @ 9:54 am

Great article. For those of you who have voiced confusion – it is quite simple. Either you are freed by or you are bound by your passion. Sports can be far more than entertainment – they can inspire and lift us to feel something we cannot express – sports can be art. Inspiration comes from those who are free and pursue their passion without regard for financial gain. The Cam Newton example is perfect. What Cam did is not a bad thing, it just wasn’t art and left the audience right where they started. He is a professional playing a sport. He is far more honest than those like Lance Armstrong who created “art” by cheating – leaving the audience jaded through the debasement of art by a con artist professional.

#13 Comment By Greg On April 9, 2016 @ 3:20 pm

While I appreciate the sentiment and maintain my affection for Taki as a writer, this piece begs for some correction.

First, this is not true: “Mind you, most of the mixed-martial artists began as karatekas…” – most people who have developed an interest in mixed martial arts tend to focus on ground fighting (in particular Brazilian jiu jitsu), western boxing, and Thai boxing: their evolution probably having proceeded in that order. There is little to no focus on karate because it is not effective in that particular context (a low level jiu jitsu player will dominate a high level karate practitioner – anyone with experience in the “dojo challenges” of the 90s can attest to this).

Second, the degree of technical skill and training for top level mixed martial arts is off the charts – to equate it with “bar fighting” is silly. I certainly regret the WWE style antics that fighters are adopting to drum up fan enthusiasm, but it is probably an inevitable feature of our degraded culture.

None of which is to depreciate the elegance or potential utility of karate as a discipline – it’s a fine art and a fine sport for many reasons.

#14 Comment By Man of Leisure On April 10, 2016 @ 9:27 am

I agree with Charles. MMA (UFC aside – you should get to the difference Taki) is a legit sport, art and proven self-defense method. Yes, the UFC uses MMA and “reality television” to sell out arenas and many of the fighters do take issue with some aspects of that. But, I have been to several sanctioned MMA events that were considered amateur (with top caliber fighters) and witnessed nothing but respect between the two fighters and their coaching teams. That’s totally fine that your like your fighting style and the history behind it, but take some of that respect and spirit that it gave you and try not to be so narrow minded about the evolution of martial arts.

#15 Comment By Matt B On April 11, 2016 @ 9:42 am

Thank you to Charles, Greg, Myron, and others for standing up for the necessary precision of MMA. I come from 20+ years of “traditional” martial arts practice, and I still cringe every time I see any traditional martial artist refer to “MMA” as brawling.

And to the rest, thank you for pointing out some of the more dodgy aspects of the “oral history” of Karate in the original article. Myron, the only thing I’d add is that most martial historians agree that the Okinawans — like most people — most likely had their own indigenous form of combat that predated contact with Fukien Kung Fu. While Chinese martial arts definitely had a strong impact on proto-Karate, those lessons were most likely grafted on to preexisting combat systems.

I also tend to think the “self defense” versus “sport” argument is a dead end. Without a doubt there are rules in sport to protect the fighter and “dirty” moves have been removed. However, you still need a solid delivery system to actually make those dirty move work. Far to many amateur martial artists assume they can eye gouge their way out of a fight when they lack to ability to actually deliver that attack. The great thing about the sport training paradigm (and this goes back to at least Kano and the development of Judo) is the constant testing of one’s delivery system.