Steven Da Costa, a pioneer seeking gold

Steven Da Costa of France (red) and Ricardo Giegler of Germany (blue) compete in the Men's Kumite -67kg semi-final during the Baku 2015 European Games (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images for BEGOC)
Steven Da Costa of France (red) and Ricardo Giegler of Germany (blue) compete in the Men's Kumite -67kg semi-final during the Baku 2015 European Games (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images for BEGOC)

The 23-year-old French athlete is on a singular quest: to be part of the team who will capture the first Olympic gold in karate, which will make its debut in Tokyo. Steven Da Costa is like his Far West ancestors from the 19th century -  only gold matters. 

The fight for the gold medal is on and his spot is already secured. Unlike his ancestors, who travelled to the West in the 19th century in search of the gold, Steven Da Costa remains determined to travel to Tokyo and win that gold medal at the Games next year.

"Qualification is good, but I need to bring back gold," Da Costa told Tokyo 2020.

"Travelling to Tokyo without doing nothing, I’m not interested."

For the first time in history, karate will be part of the Olympic programme in Japan. However, the French karateka won’t be alone in his quest and he will have to be the smartest, fastest and finest to win the coveted gold. Eighty athletes will stand in the same venue: Nippon Budokan, the Japanese home of martial arts, which was built for the judo competition at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games, and currently holds judo, karate and other events.

The long road to the East

Every single day for the past two years, the reigning karate World Champion (-67 kg) had been determined to book his ticket for Tokyo 2020. And he managed to do so last February by winning the Karate1 Premier League Dubai stage in his category, securing his place through the Olympic ranking.

He is the first French karateka to qualify for Tokyo and remains the only one. The next qualifying competitions for the Olympic ranking were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I am lucky to have qualified before the end of the qualification period," said Da Costa who has a part-time job with the French National Railway Company (SNCF).

He now has more than one year to focus on the Games. Qualification is over for him, and he’s happy to be done with it as it has been two years of intense competition and hard training.

"We’ve been through two years where once a fortnight or at least once a month, we were fighting in high level competition with fighters from the world's top 50. It was like a mini World Championships and there were no easy fights. That was physically tough - everybody was running out of energy. When I qualified, it was more a relief than satisfaction."

A competitive athlete

The Petit Prince of karate will have to be prepared, as the Olympic competition will be even more challenging. For kumite, there are three categories for men and for women as opposed to the usual international competitions, like World Championships, where there are five categories for both the men and women's competition. In addition, for each Olympic category, only ten athletes are allowed to compete. That means the Olympic gold hunters need to be the best in the world.

According to Da Costa, neither the title of world champion, nor his three European golds or his eight Premier League wins will help him to claim the one and only Olympic gold.

"The competition will be very tough. Being the reigning world champion will mean nothing. We’ll all be equal and anything could happen. I don’t even know if there will be any favourites."

His past experiences in Tokyo have not been particularly favourable, so the quest for gold will be an even harder challenge.

"Every time I fought in Tokyo, I never won. It’s time to make a difference."

Family business

Hopefully, Steven won’t be alone in Tokyo because karate is not just a personal quest for Da Costa. It’s a family business. His twin brother Jessie and elder brother Logan are also karatekas, and are also setting their sights on Olympic qualification. They are all coached by their father Michel in Mont-Saint-Martin, in France's northeast.

For Steven, being with his two brothers at the Olympics, who will fight in different categories, would be a great advantage.

"That would be beautiful because together, we are stronger. We are never alone. We sometimes have down times and we support each other. When something is not going well, we stick together. Both in victory and defeat, everybody is here."

Coming back to the West with gold

Da Costa knows the quest for gold won’t be easy for him or the rest of his family.

His twin brother underwent a cruciate ligament rupture last November and will be back on the tatami in July. He is hoping to qualify for Tokyo 2020 in an upcoming tournament, with dates still to be determined, and the national federation still need to select the athletes who will compete at the Games.

On the other hand, Logan, the eldest brother, who is currently no. 12 in the karate Olympic ranking, will also have to compete in the Olympic qualifier. Logan was actually the first to venture into karate and is credited with making it a family affair.

If the siblings answer the call of the Olympic gold rush, there is no doubt the 2018 world champion is in the best shape to fight for the big prize. Even if they all cannot compete, his family will be there to travel back West with him with an Olympic gold.