Taekwondo

Lutalo Muhammad and the worst second in sport

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Lutalo Muhammad

Image credit: Eurosport

ByBen Snowball
03/04/2020 at 08:46 | Updated 03/04/2020 at 09:08
@BenSnowball

"If I could turn back time, of course I would duck or run."

Five… four… three… two… one. The clock stops.

Lutalo Muhammad is ordered away from his opponent. The scoreboard flicks from 6-4 to 6-5. Still ahead. One second from Olympic glory. And… what’s that on the side of my head?

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It’s a moment he has replayed over and over. Cheick Sallah Cisse’s punt of a spin kick catching him on the cheek, the Ivorian manically running away from the arena floor in celebration, the slow realisation that it was silver – not gold – that would be going around his neck in Brazil.

Lutalo Muhammad and the worst second in sport

Image credit: Getty Images

Four years after hate mail arrived at his door following his controversial taekwondo selection for London 2012 over Aaron Cook, Muhammad was denied the ultimate vindication. His sobs swept across the UK as he unravelled in a gut-wrenching interview, the camera exposing the tiny margins between triumph and disaster.

"Even after all these years it’s still impossible for me to watch and not feel 1-2% of that feeling at the time – absolute devastation," he tells journalists.

"It happened. That’s sport. Someone has to win, and someone has to lose. You do everything you can to be the winner on the day, but unfortunately it doesn’t always go your way."

And yet despite the trauma, Muhammad has managed to claw a positive from his Rio brain freeze.

"I’m able to look at it with perspective," says Muhammad. "Cisse of the Ivory Coast won Africa’s first gold medal in taekwondo.

"In the last four years, the impact that’s had on the continent is massive. In the Ivory Coast it’s now a premier sport, they sell out stadiums for their local African tournaments.

"If I could turn back time, of course I would duck or run and secure the gold medal. But I can’t do that. With how the sport’s grown across an entire continent, I can look at that positively and say at least I was a small part of that. It’s great to see."

Silver medalist Lutalo Muhammad (L) stands next to gold medalist Cheick Sallah Junior Cisse

Image credit: Getty Images

Muhammad will now have to wait until 2021 for his redemption shot after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But after an injury-ravaged few years, it is a break that could yet benefit the 28-year-old as he battles for selection with fellow Brit Mahama Cho in the +80kg category.

"It’s a very strange to time to be an athlete at the moment," he says. "While my Olympic goal and dream doesn’t change, this is so much bigger than sport and it’s important that I do my part.

"I’ve been back at home in London for the last week in order to be around my family during these difficult times. I’m training at home now with my dad [Wayne, his coach]. So although there has been a big disruption to my training I am very lucky that I am still able to train at all and I’ve had great remote support from GB Taekwondo.

"I will keep looking ahead and focus on what I can do; keep up my fitness and work towards being in the best condition I can be to achieve my dream of Olympic gold. When that opportunity will be, I will have to wait and see, but I will make sure I do whatever I can to be ready for it."

Bronze in London. Silver in Rio. It’s the easiest script possible for when Tokyo finally comes around next summer.

"The best is yet to come from me. I’m still young, I still look good. I’m 28 going on 21," adds Muhammad.

"I feel fantastic so I’m very confident that there are many more opportunities for me where I can go achieve what I want to achieve."

Lutalo Muhammad is an ambassador for Worldwide Olympic and Paralympic Partner Bridgestone for their ‘Chase Your Dream, No Matter What’ campaign.

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