Martial arts are truly the world's unifying sport.
A few years ago, my wife and I were walking in the backyard of Napoleon's house--the palace gardens of Versailles--when we met an elderly French gentleman out for his afternoon walk. We smiled and exchanged greetings, and chatted to the best of our abilities. Between my two years of high-school French, and his limited English, we gathered that he lived close by, had been retired for some time, and walked through the gardens every day before dinner (Lucky guy!). Then he asked if we knew of the martial arts--I think he called them "arts martiaux".
Surprised, I said, yes, I study karate. He then pulled out his wallet and showed us a photo of himself in full kyudo regalia--long bow, hakama trousers, and flowing white shirt. Turned out that he had studied in Japan, and was one of the first Frenchmen to practice and teach the art of Japanese archery in France.
The martial arts are now common throughout the world--it's not uncommon to see kyudo in France, savate in California, or muay thai kickboxing in Amsterdam. The worldwide spread of the martial arts was really evident at the recent Sydney Olympics. Even before competition began, the martial artists showed up in force. The opening ceremony had a huge share of martial artists, with judo players carrying the flag for Morocco and Mongolia as well as Japan, or taekwondo fighters carrying the flags of the Philippines and Vietnam. Even the history-making march of the two Koreas under a unified flag had a martial artist leading the way, with North Korea's judo coach sharing the flag carrying duties.
The competitions themselves showed the worldwide spread of the martial arts. Although Japan did well in judo, the sport it introduced to the Olympic program in the 1964 Tokyo Games, it was by no means dominating. Fighters from Turkey, Italy, France, Cuba, and Spain also took golds, with British, Russian, and Brazilian fighters claiming several silver medals. In the same vein, the fighters from South Korea were prevented from taking a sweep of the gold medals by a Mexican-American kid from Sugarland, Texas. Greece, Cuba, and Australia also took gold medals--countries that might not be thought of as centers of taekwondo action.
On the other hand, European countries had to deal with the upstart Chinese and South Korean teams in the European martial art of fencing. South Korea's Kim Young-ho surprised the world with his gold medal in individual foil, while the Chinese team surprised themselves with their silver medal performance in the team foil competition.
The spread of martial arts on the international stage means a better community for all martial artists--more innovation and more retention of traditions. Although the martial arts were originally devised for combat, they take on additional uses in the modern world--for sport, diplomacy, and fellowship. Recently, Russian president Vladimir Putin, himself a judo black belt, visited Okinawa with other world leaders. Putin, though, took the opportunity to get in some training, shedding his suit jacket and shoes and mixing it up with judoka at a local school. Now that's throwing your weight around.
The martial arts are no longer thought of as being strange, or exotic. While some may bemoan the "mainstreaming" of the martial arts, I think it's great! Even as the martial arts grows in popularity, and becomes more and more common, there will always be room for people on the fringe--like Bruce Lee--analyzing and innovating. The more, the merrier.
All content copyright © 1999-2010 James Hom