The Last Word: Cook's taekwondo drama will turn into revenger's tragedy
When all the arguments over selection end, the sport's funding will become the real issue
Sunday 10 June 2012
We first met, clandestinely, in a hotel on the outskirts of Leicester. Anonymity was guaranteed in a breakfast room occupied by salesmen who had tired eyes and the pallor of life on the road.
Gary Hall was an executive with Next, the clothing company. He had ambitions to become the most influential figure in British taekwondo, and couldn't have contemplated the notoriety he would attract.
He needed my access to lottery funding and strategic expertise. This was not the usual grey, risk-averse time server. His intensity and clarity of vision were compelling.
I offered him a partnership, the services of sports scientists, physiotherapists and conditioning coaches. Together we set up a dojang, a training hall, above a gym at Loughborough University. Kill Bill met Chariots of Fire. It was a strangely alluring place, suffused by the sweet smell of sweat. The violence was balletic, tempered by the philosophical pretensions of an ancient martial art. Loosely translated from Korean, taekwondo means "the way of the foot and the fist".
Hall became performance director, established an Academy in Manchester and nurtured emerging athletes like Aaron Cook, who had first fought at the age of five, inspired by cartoon characters, the Power Rangers
British taekwondo was awarded £4,829,600 to prepare for the London Games. Cook became world No 1. Hall acquired a reputation for being difficult, but what could possibly go wrong?
Hall and his fellow selectors had better be correct in their professional judgement, that Lutalo Muhammad has a better chance of winning an Olympic medal than Cook. The future of their sport depends on it.
The Olympic torch may have been hijacked by brand ambassadors and D-list celebrities, but it shines a harsh light into the heart of darkness.
Muhammad, whose selection was ratified by the BOA at the third time of asking, has received hatemail and requires counselling from a clinical psychologist to deal with the stress of it all. He will be under inhuman pressure to perform in London.
Cook's life has lost its sense of purpose. He will find little comfort in the conspiracy theorists, and is likely to place his future in the hands of lawyers. This is not going to be a summer of love.
Cook's back story – Brave Brit prepares for greatness in his garage – is tainted by commercial opportunism, political expedience and the perverse rituals of a sport plagued, globally, by secrecy, scandal and mismanagement.
Taekwondo has five basic tenets – courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit. Cook swore an oath to be modest, respectful, and "never to abuse my knowledge of the art".
By rejecting Hall, and walking out of the GB performance programme to train on his own, Cook defied the fourth of ten commandments: "Always be loyal and never criticise the instructor, Taekwondo or the teaching methods."
He was not permitted to eat, drink, smoke or wear jewellery in the dojang, but he signed up with an agent, who marketed his idealism to six blue-chip sponsors.
Hall's insistence that this played no part in his omission has been largely lost in the fallout from a selection process so pungent it could have been held in Billingsgate. Power plays are under way. The manifest failings of taekwondo's governance procedures offer the BOA a long-awaited excuse to declare civil war on UK Sport, the quango which distributes £500million to elite sport.
Despite their supposed devotion to a "no compromise" strategy, both sides, in my experience, prefer to promote an illusion of competence, rather than acknowledge the reality of chaos.
The world governing body, the exquisitely abbreviated WTF, is struggling to sustain taekwondo as an Olympic sport beyond Rio in 2016. It has a vested interest in appearing to respond to concerns expressed in the Cook case.
No one wins. Revenge will be taken when funding dries up, after 2012. If Britain fail to take at least two taekwondo medals in London, they will come at Hall, with foot and fist.
Why are the fans colour blind?
The Premier League is the place to see and be seen, according to modern myth. Its power transcends tradition and saps self-respect.
How can we conclude otherwise, when the majority of Cardiff City fans were bought off by the promise of promotion and an oddly round sum, £100million?
The rationale for accepting the rebranding programme, driven by their Malaysian owners, had a bleak simplicity. Of course it is wrong, went the argument. Modern football is amoral and unforgiving. We, the fans, are slaves of an unquestioning, unrequited, love.
The consequences of protecting our history – penury, stagnation and relegation – are unthinkable.
Really? Why do Dagenham& Redbridge barely registera quorum, but have the wittiest, most self-deprecating fans I saw last season?
Why are clubs like Brentford, Crewe, Exeter, Millwall and even poor, benighted Portsmouth, at the heart of their communities? It is because they matter. They have a social significance beyond corporate cynicism or market forces.
The Premier League has such clubs, like Everton, Stoke City and Norwich City. But the majority are as synthetic as the red shirts Cardiff fans must purchase, as part of their pact with the devil.
Avram Grant has never really convinced as a football manager. His report card reads: great networker, nondescript coach, dour personality. Yet as he shepherded England players around Auschwitz on Friday, he exposed the folly of conventional wisdom. Here was a man of dignity and substance, sharing enduring grief. An inspiration.
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