Practice makes perfect: Kiyuna Ryo favourite to shine in karate's Games debut

Japanese star from karate's homeland Okinawa is three-time world champ and clear favourite in men's kata at Tokyo 2020.
By Shintaro Kano

Japan are in no shortage of gold-medal candidates at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games such as Ono Shohei in judo or badminton’s Momota Kento.

Kiyuna Ryo, though, just might be the best bet of them all.

In what will be the Games debut for Karate, Kiyuna is widely tipped to win the men’s kata gold by a landslide, having dominated the recent scene.

The 30-year-old Okinawan won every competition he entered in 2019, both home and abroad.

He swept five Premier League events (Paris, Dubai, Rabat, Shanghai, and Tokyo), won a third successive Asian championship, and capped the year by capturing his eighth consecutive national title.

Had it not been for the coronavirus, a record fourth straight WKF world championship would have been highly likely this past June.

And the secret of his success? Practice... every. single. day. - a promise Kiyuna has kept with his master Sakumoto Tsuguo since junior high school.

“Don’t take a day off, 365 days a year”, Kiyuna says.

He added to “I do five to six hours each day, seven days a week, on technical practice... Then one to two hours, seven days a week, of physical training"

Kiyuna thinking positive

Not even Kiyuna’s legendary work ethic, however, could have prepared him for the pandemic that has turned his world upside down.

In an interview with the Tokyo Sports daily back in April, a month after the Games were postponed to 2021, Kiyuna admitted he was rattled by the shocking news of 24 March.

“Ever since it was decided, four years ago, that karate would be in the Olympics, I had my sights set on the summer of 2020, competed in the Premier League”, Kiyuna said.

“So I’m not going to sit here and say I wasn’t disappointed”.

Yet in a show of his steel resolve, Kiyuna did not sulk or wallow in self-pity, instead quickly trying to turn the situation into a positive.

COVID-19 may have wiped out the global sport calendar for the majority of 2020, but what it did was give Kiyuna a much-needed breather, something he had not been able to enjoy as a result of his success, ironically.

“I was relieved to find out it was postponed and not cancelled because that meant I still had a chance to compete”, Kiyuna added.

“Given my age and the sport I’m in, and the improvement I can make over the next year, I feel like I can be even better than I am now."

“The only adjustment I have to make is me - readjust my mind and body for the year ahead."

“For about two years, all I did was compete and could not have a proper offseason. But now I have one, and it’s given me the time to review and refine every technique. It’s very rewarding”.

With such determination from someone who is already head and shoulders ahead of the pack, producing a shock upset will be a tough task for his main competititors - including Mattia Busato of Italy, Antonio Diaz of Venezuela, Damian Quinteroof Spain, and Ali Sofuoglu of Turkey - who were named alongside Kiyuna as the first men's karate qualifiers for the Games.

Leaving no stone unturned

Since taking up karate at the age of five, Kiyuna has been relentless in pursuit of perfection, ruling out nothing.

He has taken aspects of a traditional Okinawan dance into his programme, and even studied the eye movement of lions and tigers because he believes looks can kill in kata.

Kiyuna Ryo is all about karate (Getty Images)

Kiyuna adding Olympic gold to his World Games title would also be massive for the people of Okinawa, which is clamoring for its first Olympic champion - especially in a sport so deeply rooted in the prefecture.

And Kiyuna is not shy about his desire to make history.

“If I win at the Olympics it will be the first gold medal in karate”, he told reporters in January.

“I want my name as part of the long history of karate. I want to rewrite history”.