Fresh Face Packs A Wallop In Campaign To Include Karate At 2020 Tokyo Games

Fresh face packs a wallop in campaign to include karate at 2020 Tokyo GamesAt first, Ayumi Uekusa hesitated about becoming the public "face" of karate's bid to become a medal sport at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
But now, the World Games gold medalist can be seen all over the capital pushing for karate's inclusion in the Games.
"I believe my mission is to have as many people as possible realize the finer points to enjoying karate, regardless of age or gender," said Uekusa, 22.

About 10,000 posters have been displayed at major train stations in Tokyo as well as at karate competitions around Japan.

Uekusa also appears in ads that are running in JR trains in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area. The ads speak about the desire of karateka to participate in the Tokyo Olympics and pass on a tradition of Japan to a global audience.

Uekusa expressed her feelings about competing on the Olympic stage at a news conference held in December 2014 after karate gained another shot at being included as a medal sport.

"The Olympics are a competition in which a nation becomes one because everyone watches on TV and roots for their athletes," Uekusa said. "I want to win the gold medal if karate is selected."

Joining the Olympics has been a goal of karate officials for a half-century.

The sport has its origins as a martial art developed in Okinawa, but later branched out into various schools around Japan. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics served as a catalyst to bring together a number of those schools to establish the Japan Karatedo Federation (JKF).

A major goal of that organization was to join the Olympics, much like judo, which became a medal sport at the 1964 Tokyo Games.

However, karate's three past attempts at becoming an Olympic sport all were unsuccessful, including a vote in 2013 by the International Olympic Committee on the lineup for the 2020 Games.

Karate was given a new chance after approval was given to allow the host city to propose a new sport for its Games. That idea was strongly pushed by Thomas Bach, the IOC president.

The JKF then began a major publicity blitz with Uekusa in the forefront because organization officials felt they were presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

In addition to her cover girl looks, Uekusa has also excelled in international competition.

In the 2013 World Games, she won the gold medal in the women's 68-kilogram and over category. The World Games are held every four years and bring together sports that are not included in the Olympics.

Uekusa has also twice placed third in the world karate championships.

She is a relative late bloomer since she became a more accomplished karateka as a student at Teikyo University, where she graduated from in March.

The potential for development into an even better competitor was another reason JKF officials chose Uekusa to serve as the face of the sport. The reasoning is that in the five years leading up until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, she will likely reach a level where she would be a strong medal favorite.

Her bright smile is also vital for attracting the interest of high school students and younger to boost karate's popularity.

Akio Kondo, 68, the JKF executive who chairs the media and public relations committee, said, "In terms of both karate skills and as a human, she is still in a growing stage and has not yet reached completion. However, if there is an excellent opportunity in 2020 in terms of the Olympics, there is further room for her growth. Her stance of moving forward with an optimistic face also overlaps with where the karate world in Japan is right now."

Having become a salaried employee from April, Uekusa now is the secretary to the president of Koei Keibi Hosho Co., a security service company.

"My feelings of gratitude for the support everyone has given me so I can participate in karate has become even stronger," Uekusa said. "I believe it will be important to produce a good result in the sport while also carrying out my duties as an employee."

At one time, she had considered retiring from competition after graduating from college. But with the possibility that karate might be included in the Olympics, Uekusa is now prepared to stake out a course as both a competitor and company worker.

Uekusa said the Olympic athlete she most admires is figure skater Mao Asada.

"I had goose bumps watching her perform at the Sochi Olympics," Uekusa said. "I thought about how much pressure she must have been under as well as how much sacrifice she had to make. I also want to become an athlete who can inspire those who are watching me."