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Sakura Kokumai, from YMCA to Japan to host family, becomes first U.S. Olympic karate qualifier

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Sakura Kokumai, a first-generation American whose parents are from Japan, became the first U.S. Olympic qualifier in the new Olympic sport of karate.

World Karate announced the first 40 global qualifiers on Wednesday, taking the four highest-ranked athletes per gender in the eight Olympic medal events after the final qualifying tournaments were canceled due to the coronavirus. One host-nation athlete from Japan also qualified per event.

Kokumai, a 27-year-old, eight-time national champion ranked fifth in the world in the kata discipline, was the lone American among those first qualifiers. It came at the end of a two-year qualifying process with more than 20 competitions.

“I’ve known for about two weeks, but I’ve just been waiting for that last confirmation,” Kokumai said, noting she found out via social media. “So that waiting part was super hard. But as soon as I got it … I think everything that I was holding on kind of released then. I was excited, happy, everything that I went through kind of just all the emotions came out all at once.”

The other karate discipline, kumite, is the head-to-head fighting discipline. In kata, athletes complete a series of predetermined movements and are judged on speed, strength, focus, breathing, balance and rhythm.

Kokumai, born in Hawaii, began taking karate lessons at age 7 at a local YMCA. She eventually moved to Japan to study (earning a master’s in international culture and communication), train and work.

“Karate in Japan is like what football is to here,” Kokumai said in November. “You can get scholarships, like sports scholarships, like big time from junior high, high school to college, and even after college you can find a job in a company and still do karate representing that company.”

Two or three years ago, Kokumai’s coach died and she moved back to the U.S. A family friend in Santa Clarita, Calif., offered a bedroom to her.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted training for many U.S. Olympic hopefuls, but karate can be practiced anywhere.

“So that’s something we’re all thankful for, especially for kata athletes, for our discipline,” Kokumai said from California, where she has always trained by herself. “It’s a good thing that karate doesn’t need much equipment. All we have to do is keep on training with the space we have. So in that sense, I’m not too worried at all. I actually shouldn’t be because the environment for me hasn’t really changed in terms of training. So just trying to just praying that it all goes away.”

NBC Senior Olympic Researcher Rachel Thompson contributed to this report.

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Tokyo Olympics to feature new sports, return of baseball, softball in 2020

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A look at new sports and new events with one year to the Tokyo Games, which will have the most sports (33) and events (339) in Olympic history …

New Sports
Baseball/Softball
Not entirely “new.” Baseball and softball were on the Olympic program in the 1990s and 2000s, but voted off following the 2008 Beijing Games. This could be the sports’ lone return to the Games. Baseball and softball were not proposed by Paris 2024 organizers, and it remains to be seen what will happen for Los Angeles 2028. It appears that MLB players will not take part (as it was in baseball’s previous Olympic appearances), but two U.S. Olympic softball stars of the past are hoping to get back to the Games — pitchers Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman.

Karate
Like baseball and softball, karate is not on the Olympic program beyond Tokyo. With modern origins in Japan in the early 1900s, the eight medal events should draw a crowd. There will be three weight classes per gender in the head-to-head fighting discipline of kumite, plus one men’s and one women’s division in kata, which is performed individually.

Skateboarding
The latest X Games sport to join the Olympic program. Skateboarding will feature two disciplines — street and park for men and women. Three-time Olympic snowboard halfpipe champion Shaun White showed interest in trying to qualify, but he has competed just once and that was last summer. Instead, teenagers and even preteens have taken up most of the early headlines, including Sky Brown, an 11-year-old, Japanese-born British athlete who would be the youngest Olympian since 1992.

Sport Climbing
This is not Alex Honnold free soloing El Capitan, but it already has Olympic roots from the Youth Summer Games. One set of medals will be awarded per gender, combining three disciplines: lead, speed, and bouldering. From Tokyo 2020: Speed climbing pits two climbers against each other, both climbing a fixed route on a 15-meter wall at a 95-degree angle. Winning times are generally between five and eight seconds. In bouldering, climbers scale a number of fixed routes on a four-meter wall in a specified time without safety ropes. In lead climbing, athletes attempt to climb as high as possible on a wall measuring over 15 meters in height within a fixed time with safety ropes.

Surfing
The U.S. has a chance to rack up medals here, given it currently boasts the world’s top-ranked man (Kolohe Andino) and woman (Carissa Moore). Icon Kelly Slater, the 47-year-old, 11-time world champion, is in position to qualify but is unsure if he wants to fulfill all the eligibility requirements. The “father of surfing” is actually an Olympian — five-time swimming medalist Duke Kahanamoku, who asked the IOC to consider adding surfing to the Games a century ago.

Notable New Events
Basketball: 3×3
The format: Games last 10 minutes, or until one team scores 21 points. Games are played on a half-court with a 12-second shot clock, and offense immediately turns to defense after a team scores. Former Purdue star Robbie Hummel just led the U.S. men to a world title and is favored to be part of the four-man Olympic team given it’s highly unlikely NBA players will take part.

Swimming/Track and Field: Mixed-Gender Relays
Mixed-gender events make Olympic debuts in two of the Games’ marquee sports. In swimming, a mixed 4x100m medley is on the program. Mixed relays debuted at the world championships in 2015, and this extra event could help American Caeleb Dressel approach Michael Phelps‘ record eight gold medals at a single Games. In track and field, a mixed 4x400m is slated for the first two days of the competition schedule, before the individual 400m.

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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IOC adds five sports, including baseball/softball, skateboarding and surfing

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Wednesday afternoon the International Olympic Committee announced that it has approved the addition of five sports for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, with skateboarding and surfing due to make their respective Olympic debuts. Also making the cut were baseball/softball, karate and sports climbing. While baseball and softball are obviously two separate sports, their bid was a joint bid hence their approval as a single entity.

However, It “The additional sports in Tokyo will not impact the athlete or event quotas of existing Olympic sports or be binding on future host cities,” per the IOC release. “The current athlete and event quotas are unaffected.”

Baseball and softball were both removed from the Olympics following the 2008 Summer Olympics in Bejing, with baseball having made its debut as an official Olympic sport in 1992. Softball made its debut as an Olympic sport in 1996 in Atlanta. While those two sports have prior history in the Summer Olympics, the other four sports added Wednesday do not. Karate joins tae kwon do and judo as martial arts in the Summer Olympics, with tae kwon do making its official debut in 2000 and judo doing so way back in 1972 (judo was part of the 1964 Summer Olympics program, but not in 1968).

“We want to take sport to the youth. With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us,” IOC president Thomas Bach said of the additions. “We have to go to them. Tokyo 2020’s balanced proposal fulfils all of the goals of the Olympic Agenda 2020 recommendation that allowed it. Taken together, the five sports are an innovative combination of established and emerging, youth-focused events that are popular in Japan and will add to the legacy of the Tokyo Games.”

There was no shortage of positive reactions on Twitter to the additions of these sports, as one would expect.