East Londoner who justified GB Taekwondo's faith

By Rob Virtue on September 20, 2012 8:54 AM |

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As post event interviews this Olympics went, Lutalo Muhammad's following defeat in the taekwondo quarter-finals at the Excel Centre was definitely one of the most poignant.

Because not only had he had high hopes of winning, he had also had to battle a concerted media campaign against him.

It argued his spot should have been given to fellow GB athlete Aaron Cook, who was number one in the world but had fallen out with the GB selectors.

Team GB went for Muhammad saying he was better prepared.

Either way, the 21-year-old from Walthamstow was every much the broken man when he was hauled in front of the BBC cameras.

So it was remarkable how Muhammad managed to pick himself up from the devastation of defeat to win a bronze through the Olympics repechage system.

"It sounds very clich├ęd but losing out on a gold medal probably was of the lowest points I can remember," said Muhammad, speaking at an event in Canary Wharf's KPMG this week. "I was in a very emotional state. At that point I was thinking 'forget it, I'm going home'.

"How did I pick myself up? A lot of credit goes to my coaches Joseph Salim and Paul Green. They gave me the right mental attitude.

"The key point they got across was this bronze medal is now my gold. I had to put everything I was putting into wanting the gold into this. Once I started warming up I knew I wasn't going home without an Olympic medal."

He went on to win that fight to claim bronze with victories over 2011 world champion Yousef Karami from Iran and Armenia's Arman Yeremyan.

That made him Britain's first male taekwondo medalist and rightly silenced much of the criticism.

As well as suffering the pressure of the media campaign, Muhammad was also - unthinkably for a GB athlete preparing for an Olympics - the victim of abuse on social networking sites and received hate mail.

How he would have performed without that we will never know.

"It wasn't the ideal preperation," said Muhammad. "It was a terrible ordeal to go through. It added a lot of unnecessary pressure and I like to think that's in the past now. Walking out there in front of the cameras was pressure enough.

"The one positive I can put to it is I won't have to go through anything as tough as that again. You train for the biggest sports event of almost any athlete's career and you've got to deal with all this from the media."

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Now that's behind him the only people now confronting Muhammad have more honourable intentions.

"'When I'm walking down the street people stop me and go 'taekwondo'. It's a bit weird really. I never thought it would be like that. But I'm enjoying the ride.

"I've had a lot of people knock at my door. My dad was really enjoying it. He shouted 'Lutalo come downstairs', and so I come downstairs to see a family of four and I'm in my dressing gown. At least he could have told me to get my Olympic tracksuit on. And then they started taking pictures!

"But it's been cool. I've enjoyed it so much. It's great to get recognised."

And being an east Londoner he's also delighted to see the changes in the Olympics boroughs. He's feeling the positivity across a range of sports for future Games.

"There's a general mood in the air," said Muhammad. "It's been great for the area. I went to a meeting recently at a local sports club and they discussed already there's been a massive increase in interest in different sports clubs.

"That's the legacy - raising interest levels for the younger generation. We may not see the effects in 2016 or 2220 but going forward in the future. There's more people to look up to and we can be a very strong nation in sports."

Muhammad visited KPMG on Monday to mark City Academy, Hackney's plans to open a taekwondo school for pupils.

The school is sponsored by the Wharf firm. The company has also sponsored GB Taekwondo for the last five years.