Lutalo Muhammad has been the innocent victim at the heart of the controversy that has divided his sport in the last three months but the 21-year-old Londoner put the politics behind him last night to become the first British man ever to win an Olympic medal in taekwondo. Twenty-four hours after Jade Johnson won Britain's first gold in the sport, Muhammad left the arena with a bronze.
During the furore over the omission of Aaron Cook, the world No 1, from the British team, Muhammad had to try to remain focused on his Olympic debut. When he lost 7-2 in the quarter-finals to Spain's Nicolas Garcia Hemme – who went on to lose the gold medal match to Argentina's Sebastian Eduardo Crismanich – it seemed that he might leave the competition empty-handed.
However, Muhammad won a repechage against Iran's Yousef Karami 11-7 to earn a shot at the bronze medal against Arman Yeremyan, a 26-year-old Armenian. Muhammad dominated from the start, going 3-0 up after only 25 seconds with a kick to the head. The European champion led 8-2 going into the final round and went on to win 9-3, upon which he saluted all corners of the arena.
Muhammad, whose parents were in the noisy, flag-waving crowd, said afterwards: "My coaches said: 'This bronze medal is now your gold medal. You've got to treat it like a final. You've got to go for it as if you're going for the gold medal.' That put me in the right state mentally. This medal isn't the colour that I wanted, but it was hard-earned. I fought hard for it. I'm very grateful, very happy that I've got this reward."
Asked whether he had felt any pressure to justify his selection, Muhammad said: "That was never on my mind. That was never a reason to try to do well. I just wanted to win a gold medal for Team GB. I won a bronze medal and I'm very proud and very happy. The crowd were tremendous. I'm so happy the GB fans came out in force. They made it fantastic. I'm not sure I would have been able to do it without them."
When they made their decision to omit Cook the selectors said they thought Muhammad, the world No 59, was the fighter more likely to perform well at these Games because of his height. Given the two head kicks that contributed significantly to Muhammad's victory in the bronze medal match, they may feel vindicated in their decision.
Cook, who believes he was overlooked because of his decision to train outside the official British Taekwondo programme, was in the arena on Thursday night when Jones won gold but told BBC Radio 5 Live yesterday morning that he would not be watching Muhammad fight.
"I'll be in tears," he said. "I should have been fighting there today. I didn't want to wake up this morning. I was in absolute pieces. It's been difficult. It's been the hardest six weeks of my life and I really have to think about whether I want to continue in this sport."
Cook said that he would never speak again to Gary Hill, the performance director of British Taekwondo. "This decision is going to be with me for the rest of my life," he said. "I don't think I will ever be able to draw a line under it."
The tears have flowed like the Thames at this Olympics and if Sarah Stevenson had added to Britain's medal tally the capital would probably have been put on flood alert. There would hardly have been a more popular winner than the country's most celebrated taekwondo fighter, but Stevenson's Games ended when she was beaten 5-1 by Paige McPherson, the eventual bronze medallist, in her opening contest. The Korean Hwang Kyung-seon beat Turkey's Nur Tatar to win the gold.
For so long the standard bearer of taekwondo in Britain, Stevenson was competing in her fourth Olympics, having achieved her best result when she won a bronze medal four years ago. For the last 18 months, however, her mind has been on other matters. In January last year Stevenson's mother, Diana, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Within weeks of her beginning chemotherapy treatment, the fighter's father, Roy, was told that he had a brain tumour.
Stevenson withdrew from competitions in order to care for her parents, who had always been her greatest inspiration, but both died before the end of the year. She now has a tattoo on her wrist that says "because of you", in memory of them.
Having also had to cope with a serious knee injury, Stevenson was clearly not in the best shape to compete, but she insisted: "I went out there really focused. I wanted it. I wanted to win. I wanted to be here. I wanted to fight. What's happened to me over the last year has put this into perspective. This is meant to be fun. This is the Olympics. This is not life or death. You should be here to have fun and give everything – and that's what I did."Reuse content