By the end of the fourth day in the Olympic taekwondo arena, the only possible explanation left was that the Makuhari Messe Hall was cursed. Time and again British fighters had one hand on a medal only for it to change colour in their grasp. “I’m gutted,” said Bradly Sinden having led his 68kg final with eight seconds to go. “I had her,” said a mystified Lauren Williams after giving up gold with three seconds left.
On Tuesday night in Tokyo it was the turn of Liverpudlian Bianca Walkden. The three-time world champion and world No 1 suffered an agonising defeat in the last second of her semi-final, leaving her face down on the floor in disbelief. Just as in Rio five years ago she still roused herself to win bronze in the repechage a few hours later, but the 29-year-old knew this was a glorious opportunity missed to become an Olympic champion.
“Obviously I’m glad I came away with an Olympic medal, but it’s not the colour I trained for,” Walkden said, smiling through tears. “I did not want to come out at all [for the repechage] but I wanted to stand there with my head held high. I feel a little bit dead inside but I would never have given it away, I fought to the end even though it’s killing me inside. Tonight I can cry, I can let it all out, but I had to still be professional.
“I got another Olympic medal. I might paint it when I get home, no one has to know.”
The semi-final was in her hands. The fight was paused with three seconds left on the clock, and Walkden had a two-point lead over the Korean fifth seed Lee Da-bin. There are various ways to earn points in taekwondo, but in the dying embers of a contest when someone is trailing by only two points, it usually boils down to a body kick to draw or a head kick to win.
The referee, Jamaica’s highly poised Conrad Jenkins, dropped his arm to resume. Lee leapt forward and Walkden kicked out to cancel the move. Two seconds left. As they landed back on their feet, Walkden kicked to the body as Lee threw her left leg as high as she could. One second. Walkden was off balance and couldn’t evade Lee’s foot, which connected with the side of her head guard with enough force to awaken its electronic sensor. A blue light flashed registering the three-point hit. It was over.
Walkden lay face down on the arena floor for an eternity, eyes closed, breathing heavily. Just off stage her coach Michael Harvey thrashed his arms and convulsed his body in exasperated rage, launching an imaginary throw of his water bottle high into the empty stands before collecting himself to congratulate Lee; taekwondo is physically and emotionally punishing but it is played with Ye Ui – courtesy.
His reaction was understandable – it had happened again. It is easy with hindsight but could Walkden have retreated in those final moments, backed off and preserved her lead? “I wanted to attack because I’d have more regret going back than attacking. I got grabbed and I got crescented [a high arcing kick] at the end and it was over. Shoulda, coulda, woulda. I would rather live with myself attacking knowing that’s who I am.”
Of course there is no curse over Team GB, just bad luck and good opponents in a sport designed to see-saw, to encourage aggressive instincts and reward calculated risk. Even so, there is a nagging sense of what might have been. Two silver medals and one bronze is a respectable haul from five athletes including a couple of Olympic debutants, yet they were so close to so much more. Double Olympic champion Jade Jones fell to a shock defeat in her opening contest and Britain never fully regained their footing.
Jones watched Walkden’s agony unfold from the stands. The pair live together in Manchester near the National Taekwondo Centre and spent the darkest months of lockdown training and fighting in their makeshift gym in the garage. Their hard work was rewarded with a medal, but the semi-final defeat was a reminder of the brutal agony and pure ecstasy of sport, Olympic sport in particular when such rare opportunities present themselves, and that five years of careful preparation can come down to a single moment.
“We were so close, that’s what’s so hard,” said Walkden. “Bradly, eight seconds. Lauren, three seconds. I had one second. It just shows how good taekwondo is as the sport. Anything can happen.”
Does winning a medal at least ease the pain? “I’ll look back with pride once I get a gold. I’m not that far off, am I? I’m a three-time world champion, world No 1, with two Olympic bronze medals and I should be proud of that. Anyone else would die for that. Three years [until Paris 2024] isn’t that long away.”
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