Few pieces of broadcast footage distil sport’s capacity for heartbreak better than the interview given by British athlete Lutalo Muhammad immediately after his desperately cruel defeat in the men’s taekwondo final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Grimacing, whimpering and seemingly unable to process what has just unfolded, Muhammad sobs: “I was a half-second away from accomplishing my dream.” On YouTube the clip is titled “most heartbreaking Olympic interview ever”.
Moments earlier, the gold medal he identified as his destiny aged nine had been ripped from his grasp when his opponent, the Ivorian Cheick Sallah Cisse, landed a kick as the clock struck zero in the final round. From 6-4 up, somehow Muhammad had lost 8-6.
Four years later, the pain lives on. “Watching the interview, I still get that feeling – maybe only one per cent of what it was then – but I still get that feeling in my stomach,” he tells City A.M.
Even then, Muhammad was no stranger to swallowing bitter pills.
When Team GB selected him for his first Olympics in 2012 instead of then-world No1 Aaron Cook, he became collateral damage in Cook’s ultimately unsuccessful media campaign against the decision and received hate mail.
Undaunted, the boy from Walthamstow who took up taekwondo aged three under the guidance of his father, Wayne, a martial arts instructor who still runs an academy in Stoke Newington, won a bronze medal in front of a home crowd.
That strength of character radiates now from Muhammad, a reflective yet overwhelmingly upbeat presence at odds with the broken man of Rio 2016, as he puts beginners through a training session at a Kings Cross gym.
It is also why he was able to quickly digest his anguish in Brazil.
“Moping around wasn’t going to get me anywhere,” he recalls. “I knew – and this was going on in the hour after it all happened – that the only way I could make this better is to prepare for the next one.”
Muhammad praises Team GB’s point of celebrating all medals for helping him appreciate silver – “I was able to go from devastation to real personal satisfaction in a short time” – and says he gave no serious thought to walking away from the sport.
“Not really – I mean – not really,” says Muhammad, a Bridgestone ‘Chase Your Dream, No Matter What’ ambassador.
“You entertain the idea of retiring after every Olympics. ‘Do I want to put myself through all that training again?’. The result didn’t play too much of a part in that.”
In time, Muhammad was even able to see some good in his defeat, in that Cisse’s success sparked an African taekwondo boom.
Mindset is a key part of his approach, and while he pays tribute to his work with celebrated sports psychologist Dr Steve Peters, friends and family say he has always been a naturally positive and charismatic spirit.
Learning from Kobe Bryant
It was watching Michael Johnson sprint to 400m gold at Sydney 2000 that convinced Muhammad that Olympic glory was his destiny. More recently, he cites the late Kobe Bryant’s response to a rough start in the NBA as an inspiration.
“I think the first clutch game he had, he missed four three-pointers in a row. I remember reading about what he did: [Bryant went] straight to the gym to practice his shooting.”
Bouncing back from the agony of Rio has not been straightforward, in part due to injuries and a move up in weight, but in November Muhammad won his first tournament for four years. “That was a big win for me,” he says.
All the same – and possible coronavirus disruptions aside – there is no guarantee he will go to Tokyo this summer. Once again he is in a selection battle for a single Team GB spot, only this time his rival, Mahama Cho, is a good friend.
“I’m training because I’m preparing to go to a third Olympics. Other people might have other ideas but we’ll see what happens on the mat,” he says.
Let’s finish the job
As a nine-year-old, Muhammad drew a picture of the Olympic rings and wrote his name next to the words “Olympic champion 2016”.
Because he did not duck Cisse’s last kick in Rio his prediction did not come to pass, but his determination cannot be overstated.
“I don’t think anything could represent success more than an Olympic gold medal, in this current stage of my life anyway,” he says. “It would be an absolute dream come true. It’s almost impossible to describe, but it would mean everything.”
Should he fail to win gold this summer or even miss out on selection Muhammad has already resolved to plough on through as many Olympic cycles as it takes: “I don’t think this ever really stops for me.”
Muhammad’s mission could stop on Tuesday 28 July, though, when the men’s over-80kg gold medal match is due to take place at the Makuhari Messe Hall.
“Let’s finish the job,” will be his mantra if he finds himself in another Olympic final, he says. “And for Christ’s sake, in the last second, just duck.”
Lutalo Muhammad is an ambassador for Worldwide Olympic and Paralympic Partner Bridgestone for their ‘Chase Your Dream, No Matter What’ campaign.