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Overcoming the obstacles

CAN HE KICK IT?: Muhammad in action

WEARING HIS Team GB tracksuit and keeping his Olympic bronze medal safe in his pocket, London 2012 was still fresh in the mind of taekwondo competitor Lutalo Muhammad when we spoke.

The path to capture his medal was laden with many obstacles. For starters the 21-year-old’s selection was overshadowed by the fact that he was chosen over the world number one Aaron Cook, which attracted a flurry of criticism from all corners.

And then when the action was underway at the ExCel Arena, the European champion was beaten by eventual silver medallist Nicolas Garcia of Spain in the quarter-final stage.

Nevertheless, Muhammad composed himself, entered the repechage and went on to defeat Armenia’s Arman Yeremyan in the -80kg category to capture bronze for Britain.

Reminiscing about the competition, Muhammad – who was speaking from his father Wayne’s Taekwondo Black Belt Academy in east London – told the Voice of Sport: “I did go for gold and that was my goal, but when you come back with an Olympic medal you can’t help but be happy.”

He continued: “That [recovering from losing to Garcia] was incredibly difficult. I remember saying to my coach at the time that this is probably the most disappointing moment of my life. And I know that sounds very melodramatic and quite silly but it really was. But I really have to give credit to my coaches and the GB taekwondo psychologist."

CELEBRATIONS: The 21-year-old at the Olympic parade in central London

Despite losing out on the gold medal, Muhammad said the support from the team never waned. “The team all rallied together behind me and said ‘Lutalo, yes the gold has gone but you have a chance of a bronze medal and this bronze medal has to be your gold medal’. And I think that really got me in the right mindset.”

While the Olympic bronze medallist appeared upbeat throughout the interview, his demeanour noticeably became tense when the topic of the Cook selection saga was mentioned.

“It was a terrible period in my life,” explained the Londoner. “Here I am, just been selected for the biggest event for any athlete’s career, it’s a home Olympics, so I’m really proud and I really just want to train my best and go and enjoy this experience. But then I’ve got all this negative media attention every day for months and that really effected me. I had to act cool and stay focused on the task at hand.”

He asserted that “no athlete should have to go through what I went through” before continuing: “There was a lot of harassment from reporters who were at my family’s house, at this gym here, so that was really annoying.

"A lot of the time I was in Manchester. I was very fortunate that Team GB – it’s like a family – so it was very much like a protective bubble that I was in. However, my family in London had to face a lot of that horrible attention.

“My dad had people down here during the day, people constantly knocking at my home address. I don’t know how they got those addresses…shoving notes through the door, knocking on the windows, there was a lot of harassment that my family went through that I really don’t appreciate and that affects me,” the Olympian recounted.

He added: “I think it was a horrible ordeal, very unprofessional and I don’t think that kind of thing should happen again.

“The only positive I think I can take from it is that it made me stronger as a person.”

Despite the negative attention that resulted from his selection, Muhammad’s time at London 2012 was a thoroughly joyous occasion, especially as it was so close to where he resides.

“I think it really sunk in how much of a home Games it was when we drove into the Olympic village and I remember thinking ‘my house is literally 15 minutes that way!’ Stratford station – I used to go past there every day to go to school.

“I knew everything – all the surroundings off by heart. I lived there for so many years and stepping out in front of that crowd at the ExCel was incredible.”

The martial artist ended the intriguing interview by confidently declaring that at the next Olympic Games - in Brazil 2016 - that this writer can expect to see “a gold medal instead of a bronze one when we do our interview in four years time.”

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