On Thursday, 24-year-old Steven Da Costa won the first gold medal in Olympic men’s karate. It was a major vindication for the 2018 world champion — but also bittersweet, given the sport's short-lived appearance at the Games.
There are many things Steven Da Costa wishes could have been different about karate’s Olympic debut. First, that it was clouded over by the Covid-19 pandemic. Second, the fact that the martial art’s very first appearance at the Games is also set to be its last, at least for now: the International Olympic Committee has decided to drop it again for the Paris 2024.
But at least one thing went just as the French karateka hoped: he walked away with the gold.
On Thursday, Da Costa won the first gold medal in the Olympic men’s karate competition, beating Turkey’s Eray Samdan 5-0 in the final of the 67-kilogram kumite division.
It was a major vindication for the 24-year-old, who was the 2018 world champion and a two-time European champion in his weight class, but won a disappointing bronze at the European competition last May.
Da Costa overcame an early loss Thursday in Tokyo to Jordan’s Abdl Rahman Almasatfa and got a boost from the injury retirement of Italy’s Angelo Crescenzo, the 2018 world champion at 60 kilograms. Da Costa beat Kazakhstan’s Darkhan Assadilov to reach the final, where he resoundingly defeated Samdan.
“Steven is someone who does not stress, who is always smiling,” said sparring partner Maxime Relifox, a friend since his training days. “In front of his opponent, he doesn’t let anything show. If they score a point, he doesn’t lose his cool. He has a good head on his shoulders.”
From early on, the native of France’s northeastern Lorraine region made it clear that he expected nothing less.
“I’m here for the gold, not for silver or bronze,” he told FRANCE 24 ahead of the competition. “It would be a big disappointment not to come home with the gold.”
“I’m not in Tokyo for tourism,” he went on, with a grin. Da Costa will also be the flag bearer for the French delegation during the closing ceremony.
Karate: A family affair
In a way, Da Costa had been training for his appearance at the Nippon Budokan — Japan’s iconic temple of martial arts, built for the last Tokyo Olympics in 1964 — since he was a child. He and his twin brother Jesse became interested in the sport after watching their older brother Logan, himself inspired by Bruce Lee and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies.
Their father Michel has since taken it up too. While the three brothers compete together on the French karate team (if not all in Tokyo), Michel coaches at the dojo in the little town of Mont-Saint-Martin, near the border with Belgium and Luxembourg, where his sons were born.
“I was born there, I grew up there, I live there,” said Da Costa, who even bought a house in between his parents’ and his brother Logan’s. “My life is there.”
For seven formative years, though, Da Costa’s karate skills took him away from home and to the Paris region, where he started training at a high level from the age of 15. He divided his time between high school and a national sports training centre in the suburb of Châtenay-Malabry, just south of the capital, in what he describes as a highly demanding regimen.
“It’s exhausting,” he said. “You come home from class, you have practice… [and] the whole French team is training there.”
As exhilarating as it was, he said he was “a little reluctant” to be so far away, and went home every weekend before eventually moving back.
“When you’re young, you think it’s the best thing, but then I got to an age where I could have the same conditions at home,” Da Costa said.
Despite being one of the world’s best in his discipline, Da Costa is already thinking beyond his karate career. Under a program designed to support high-level athletes, he works one day a week as a station agent for Paris’s suburban rail line. When he quits competition, he’s guaranteed the position full time.
A bittersweet Olympics
For now, though, Da Costa has no intention of stopping.
With two European titles and one world championship under his belt, he was the first French karateka to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in February 2020, bringing the ultimate title — Olympic gold — within reach.
Then the pandemic hit, delaying the Games by a year. The return to competition, and especially the journey to Tokyo, was bittersweet, as Da Costa’s karate-loving family could not be there with him.
“It’s a shame that my parents can’t be in Tokyo,” he told FRANCE 24 before his departure. “It takes away from the joy, because they follow us everywhere and they won’t be able to be there for the biggest challenge of my career.”
He had hoped that his brother Logan would be able to join him for the Games, but the elder Da Costa didn’t make it out of the qualifiers. His brother Jesse, however, was able to tag along as a sparring partner for the final days of training, before returning to France to watch Steven compete from his hometown with the rest of the family.
Perhaps even more than the empty stands, Steven Da Costa regrets that karate is being granted such a brief moment in the Olympic limelight.
“Becoming the first Olympic medallist in karate would be nice, but being the last is lousy,” he said, before his win. “We’ve been given no explanation as to why karate isn’t returning. It’s one of the most popular sports in the world.”
“We will go back to the shadows,” he added, in an interview with AFP in Tokyo. “Before, it was like that and that was all we knew. Now, it’s as if we'd been given a lollipop and then they took it away from us.”
Still, Da Costa would rather not dwell on the negative. Even before he won his medal, he was too busy training. And it paid off.
He hasn’t given up on his dreams of another Olympic gold, either.
“I hope that after seeing this, they might still change their minds,” he said of the Paris 2024 organisers in the moments after clinching the medal.
Da Costa’s victory on Thursday brought France its seventh gold, for a total of 27 medals in Tokyo so far. If there are more, they will likely come from team sports, including handball, indoor volleyball and basketball, where the French men’s team will take on the United States Saturday in what promises to be a thrilling rematch. Perhaps they can channel a bit of their karate-chopping colleague’s confidence.