Brian Irr in action during the Men’s Karate Kumite +75kg Elimination Round at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on August 07, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
TOKYO — As the only two Team USA kumite athletes, Tom Scott and Brian Irr were proud to represent in their sport’s Olympic debut.
But unfortunately, their hope to represent on the podium was not meant to be.
Saturday night ended the three days of karate in Tokyo at the famous Nippon Budokan with the men’s +75kg event. Unlike kata, which had been contested earlier on, kumite athletes spar against one another — earning points as they go.
Sakura Kokumai and Ariel Torres competed in the kata, which consists of a series of precise movements performed alone and often compared to a gymnastics floor exercise. Torres went on to win the bronze, becoming the first — and only — American karate athlete to medal at an Olympic Games. Kokumai finished in fifth.
As for Irr, the 33-year-old was the last member of Team USA Karate to step on the mat, going up against explosive powerhouses like Japan and Iran in Pool B.
After Irr failed to advance out of the elimination-round bouts, his coach, Brody Burns, talked about what went wrong: “I don’t know if it was the stage, or what it was. Between rounds, he said he felt good. He felt strong. He just needed to trust his technique and throw it more,” he said.
During Irr’s final match, against Croatia’s Ivan Kvesic, the American karateka — who qualified for the Games by continental representation — received a blow to the face, ultimately breaking his nose and losing 3-1.
His pool also took out Germany’s world champion Jonathan Horne, who injured his arm while sparring with Georgia’s Gogita Arkania. The 32-year-old left the mat by stretcher and soon after withdrew from the competition.
Behind the scenes cheering on Irr was USA Karate’s captain, Tom Scott, who opened the kumite division in the men’s -75kg class the night before. “I’ll be backstage helping him warm up,” Scott said after his division had ended.
In 2016, when it was announced that karate would be added to the Olympic program, Irr moved from his hometown in New York to Plano, Texas, so that he could train with Scott and Burns.
In the early rounds of his competition, Scott — the man known as “Captain America” to his teammates — went on to face his own formidable opponents. After falling to Japan’s Ken Nishimura (2-0) and
Ukraine’s Stanilav Horuna (2-1), the 15-time national champion was unable to secure a spot in the semifinal rounds, ending his first Olympic experience in seventh place.
About his performance, Scott said, “it’s mixed feelings. I feel like I had moments where I did great, and moments where I stuttered. But it was close. We’re talking one point in one match where things could have been different.”
As a longtime advocate for the sport of karate, the 31-year-old doesn’t intend to walk away from the tatami anytime soon.
“Being an athlete on Team USA at the highest level is a dream come true in itself,” he said. “A medal would have been great, but I’ll leave that to another day.”
That day will be in Los Angeles — if he has anything to say about it — as the program for the 2028 Games has yet to be decided. “As an American and being here right now, it’s my obligation and duty to the sport to campaign,” he said. As the next Olympic host city, Paris opted not to include karate.
“The difference between karate and other sports is they’re just a game,” said Scott, “this is a lifestyle. It’s a beautiful sport and it deserves to be in the Olympics. That is going to be my focus going forward.”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo2020 to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.