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Jade Jones: I'm no cage fighter... but I also started aged eight

18-year-old on what makes taekwondo different from sporting exploitation

Jade Jones took up taekwondo when she was eight, her grandfather taking her to a local gymnasium to "toughen me up and keep me off the streets".

Those whose hackles were raised by the image of other eight-year-olds grappling in a cage flanked by leggy ring-card girls and egged on by a baying crowd may also lift an eyebrow, as taekwondo is itself a sort of mixed martial art in that you can both punch and kick. And there are plenty of tots eager to try what is translated from the Korean as "the way of the fist and the foot".

"My experience was a lot different from what we saw of those young boys," says the 18-year-old fighter from Flint, north Wales, who, 10 years on, has blossomed as one of Britain's brightest Olympic medal hopes for 2012.

"It was very well controlled, with close supervision by the coaches, you wore helmets and it was in a gym, not in a cage in front of an audience. That was wrong."

Leaving aside the would-be warriors, it is not uncommon for youngsters still in primary school, indeed some who are just out of nursery, to engage in contact sports such as karate, judo and kick-boxing in this country.

In most disciplines there is no minimum age limit to learn the rudiments. Children as young as five are given classes in judo and at eight they can compete against each other in what are termed "red belt rumbles" under the auspices of the British Judo Association. In boxing the minimum age to swap punches is 11, although Amir Khan is not alone in having learned how to spar in a gym at eight.

Jones is certainly convinced that hers was a case of the younger the better. She may sound like an X Factor wannabe but is actually a diminutive pocket rocket who punches harder than most female boxers and kicks like a mule, attributes which have brought her a BBC Wales Young Sports Personality of the Year award, world championship junior and senior silver medals, a bronze in the European seniors and Britain's first gold in any sport in the Youth Olympics.

She may be slightly built and is in a weight category (under 57kg) that is dominated by the East but like Sarah Stevenson, the elder stateswoman of British taekwondo who she says is her inspiration, Jones has been to the sport's homeland in Korea and beaten them in their own back yard.

Taekwondo has become one of Britain's most successful sports in the run-up to 2012, steadily growing since Doncaster's Stevenson showed how to better the Asians at their own game. Fourth in the Sydney Olympics, she subsequently became world and European champion and Olympic silver medallist in Beijing in what is an amalgam of kung fu, karate and kick-boxing but has its own distinctive pattern of controlled violence.

It may require the deft footwork of the tango but it is the only sport where a kick in the teeth is not only permitted but positively encouraged, with a hit to the head worth double the points of one to the torso.

It is a sport where you can get hurt, even knocked out, but so far Jones, a girl who literally lives for kicks, has been relatively injury-free. "Knocking people out is part of the sport. After all, they are trying to do the same to me. What I love is the contact, the kicks and the flashy spins. I like to think I'm a bit of an animal in there. I never give up."

This weekend taekwondo's tigress is competing with the best in the world at the British Open in Manchester. She says she realises the road to 2012 will be intensely competive. "I know I am quite small and I have to meet quite a lot of taller opponents but in this sport it doesn't matter about size if you have the ability to win."

You can be sure she will be putting her best foot forward. And upwards. After all, a medal of any colour in London will be better than that kick in the teeth. Whatever your age.