Taekwondo: Muhammad refuses to be kicked in teeth

Controversial choice for taekwondo is busy putting hate mail behind him

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The Independent Online

By this time next weekend Lutalo Muhammad will either be vindicated or vilified. He is the young man whose shock selection for the GB taekwondo team caused uproar and outrage, leaving the rebellious world No 1 lightweight Aaron Cook claiming he had been kicked in the teeth harder than he had ever been by any opponent in the sport they call "the way of the fist and the foot".

After protests, reviews, inquiries and threats of legal action, the 21-year-old Muhammad is still standing – as he says he will be when the gold medal is placed around his neck six days from now. The rumpus, he insists, is history, including the hate mail he received on social media when selectors named him in preference to the gold-medal favourite who had quit GB Taekwondos's coaching programme to do his own thing in his garage.

"A lot of the stuff that I received I don't want to even repeat, it was quite hurtful," Muhammad says. "When people start sending you hate mail and calling you names I think it's quite childish, but I'm trying to forget about that and focus on getting on the top of the podium.

"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. The situation has really been blown way out of proportion more than any of us expected. It's been tough on both of us and I don't really think that's been fair."

The four-strong GB team are all steadfastly standing by their man. "Lutalo has always been a welcome member of our squad," says the Beijing bronze medallist Sarah Stevenson, whose husband Steve Jennings, a GB coach, was on the selection panel that left Cook in the cold. "Our country does seem to focus on the negative and, to be honest, this business has made us stronger, so bring it on."

Muhammad says: "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. The only extra pressure will be what I put on myself."

Before the row erupted, little was known about Muhammad except that he was ranked well below Cook in the -80kg category in which he will compete at the ExCeL, though he is a European champion himself at the bigger weight of -87kg. He became a member of the GB Taekwondo set-up in August last year, shortly after Cook quit.

Raised in Walthamstow, less than five miles from the Olympic Park, he has a sports science degree from Westminster University and is coached by his father, Wayne, who introduced him to the sport as a three-year-old. "It works out well. He is my coach on the day and my dad the rest of the time. I owe him everything. Both my parents have been fantastic with all that has been going on, as they have been throughout my life. Even when the media stuff was at its highest they've been very supportive. I feel indebted to them for really keeping me confident and not letting me get too low.

"It's no secret that the area in London I'm from, some parts are a bit rough. There's quite a few disadvantaged youngsters and 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."

Performance director Gary Hall insists there was no "witch hunt" against Cook but that Muhammad's fighting style was felt to be more tactically beneficial because of a greater ability to score and concede fewer head-kicks. "There are some points that Aaron concedes against world-class opposition, but also low-grade players, that can lead to an inability to dominate the top-level matches," said Hall. "Lutalo is worth his place. Winning a European Championship gold [in Manchester in May] in a world-class field was a phenomenal performance."

Muhammad says he hasn't spoken to Cook "but I wish him all the best for his future. In the past he's beaten me and I've beaten him. The nature of sport means there are going to be winners and losers. But my focus is not him, it's a gold medal here."