Lutalo Muhammad is keen to make his own impression in the taekwondo tomorrow. To many, he is known only as the anti-Aaron Cook, the man who took the place that ought to have belonged to the world No 1. But despite the fierce disagreement between Cook and GB Taekwondo, Muhammad wants to show that he is an Olympian in his own right, and not just by default.
“A lot of people didn't appreciate that, like Aaron, I'm a European champion too and all I've ever tried to do is perform to the best of my ability,” Muhammad pointed out. In May, in Manchester, in the European Taekwondo Championships, while Cook won welterweight gold at 80kg, Muhammad won middleweight gold at 87kg. It is well known that Cook was world No 1 while Muhammad was back at 57, but Muhammad clearly has an impressive body of work of his own. He will be competing here at the lower 80kg limit.
Muhammad is not just the beneficiary of a fall-out. There was a sporting case for Muhammad’s inclusion. New rule changes increase the chances of taller, more agile fights such as Muhammad who attack the opponent’s head. He starts at 10.45am against Farkhod Negmatov of Tajikistan in the preliminary round, and if he wins that and then two more bouts he will compete in the final at 10.15pm.
Clearly relaxed about his ability and his right to be here, there is no weight beyond what is necessary on Muhammad. “The only extra pressures that would be put on me are what I would put on myself,” he said. “I’m going into this as the European Champion, so I take a great deal of confidence from that.”
It would be natural to be distracted by the controversy, but Muhammad insists that he will not be. “The training has been so intense, I never really had time to think about the media frenzy, it's history now. I don't think the controversy put any extra pressure on me.”
If the controversy does not, the location might. Muhammad is from Walthamstow, not far north of the Olympic Park, and his father Wayne, who coaches him, run a martial arts academy even closer, in Hackney. “It's no secret that the area in London I'm from, some parts are a bit rough,” Muhammad said. “I think I have a responsibility to carry myself in a certain way and be a role model. You'll see me at my best in these Games, I'm confident I'll do Britain proud. I love the fact that a lot of the children can be inspired by some of my achievements and then aspire to do things in the sport themselves one day. I embrace that.”