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BBC Sport
BACK   18th September 2012

TEAM GB INSPIRE A NATION AS TAEKWONDO ATHLETES EXCEL AT GAMES

By Master Kevin Jervis 7th Dan

Sarah Stevenson reading the athletes oath at the opening ceremony, Jade Jones winning Olympic Gold, Lutalo Muhammad taking bronze and Martin Stamper putting in an impressive performance catapulted WTF Taekwondo into the limelight at this year’s Summer Olympic Games in London.

Sarah, the reigning world champion went out 5-1 in her first match against American Paige McPherson. She was tipped to win Gold but just didn’t perform to her ability on the floor. The tragic loss of her parents and possibly the lack of match fitness after coming back from a severe knee injury in February must have had some influence on this but she had every right to be there as the current world champion and I am sure that had she got through that first match and started to settle back in to a competitive environment then we might have seen her on the podium as in Beijing.  

It was her 4th Olympics. A fantastic achievement as many athletes aspire to reach just one.

The Olympics had been billed as a home event that would inspire a nation. Sarah has been doing that for over a decade, just ask Martin Stamper. When interviewing him before he went back onto the floor for his bronze medal play off match, Sarah’s name was the first one he mentioned as someone who had inspired him by being at the top level for so long after 4 Olympics and two senior world championship wins, stating he only now felt that he was getting to that standard himself.

A fitting tribute to the 2011 Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year from a male player who himself won bronze at last year’s world championships.

Hopefully she will continue but let’s not forget, as well as her Beijing success and senior world championship wins she has also been senior European champion 4 times.

Jade may have won Gold here in London but still has a long way to go to emulate Sarah’s continued success in the top flight.

Martin, in the -68kg category didn’t medal but it would be an injustice to his performances to just say that he was a bit unlucky and came close to gaining a podium place.

In my view he was one of the most impressive players on the floor and so exciting to watch. His speed, balance on the move and fabulously high kicks on the spin so nearly took him to a bronze medal in the repechage , losing out narrowly 5-3 to Afghanistan’s Rohullah Nikpah who also took Bronze in Beijing, the first Olympic medal for the country in any sport.

Speaking to Martin after that match he stated, “It was tough to take. I have worked hard, especially for the last two years when my performances have picked up. Basically it’s been none stop training and been so hard just to get here. I was delighted to make it but I knew I was going to have to put in four good performances to achieve anything. I was so close in the semis (against Turkeys Servet Tazegul ) to pulling off a bit of a shock and then I made one mistake. I thought I was controlling the match really well. It might not have looked like it but I felt comfortable with his attacks and I was covering well and then one head shot changed the game.” He lost the match 9-6.

Speaking about head shots he went on to say, “Yes, I have worked on them a lot but still need to improve them. Head shots are the key to the game. I got caught with one in the semi final and one in the repechage. Its 3 points lost in each match so it’s one thing I still need to keep working on to get better at.

We have come here as a team better prepared than ever. The set up is amazing in Manchester, to ensure you peak at the right time. We’ve got the best support staff in my opinion. Probably the best in the world. I have been to most of the top facilities such as in Korea, Mexico and even Cuba but they don’t match ours.

 I have never trained harder but cleverer than I have for this and I’m smashing it to be honest. Like you said, Jade is in the final and I’ve just unluckily been beaten in the medal match and I’m sure we are going to pick up two more medals tomorrow which is disappointing for me missing out on a medal but for British Taekwondo it’s going to be amazing.”

It was still a great performance though from this very likeable Liverpudlian who beat Erick Osornio Nunez from Mexico 5-2 in his opening match and Serbia’s Damir Fejzic 8-3 in the quarter finals. He will now be concentrating on getting selected for next year’s world championships to hopefully go one better than he did in Korea last time around.

Lutalo Muhammad’s Olympic debut in the -80kg category was a roller coaster ride for this talented 21 year old from Hackney.

Selected ahead of World ranked number one Aaron Cook, he had been dogged by hate mail and threats on the lead up to the Games.

A relatively unknown name until he won the European Championships in the higher over 80kg category in May, he was selected for a variety of reasons which came under close scrutiny before being ratified by the BOA.

The whole situation and the media attention that came with it brought unnecessary pressure on Lutalo and many felt that he would need to perform at the highest level to justify his selection.

The pressure on any athlete at a home Olympics is incredible. Anything that adds to that is always going to cause issues that can ultimately affect an athlete’s performance so the pressure on this player as he walked on to the floor was probably more than most could handle.

However, he kept his nerve and composure to win his first match which saw him win comfortably 7-1 against Farkhod Negmatov of Tajikistan, so all looked well.

Unfortunately he then went up against Nicolas Garcia Hemme from Spain and lost 7-3. It was a disappointing match and unless his opponent made it to the final his Olympic dream was over.

A subdued Lutalo then spoke to me as he came off the floor saying, “That’s the nature of sport. It doesn’t always go your way. I had a few shots that could have scored on another occasion but there are no excuses being made. I’m very disappointed. I came here to win gold. I understand it’s an opportunity that I won’t come across again but I have to live with that and maybe refocus and gather myself for a possible repechage match.”

When asked if the problems over his selection had affected him he replied, “I wasn’t focussed on that. It was my dream to win gold. It just wasn’t meant to be today.”

GB Taekwondo’s High performance coach Joseph Salim was equally disappointed and while stating that Lutalo had been focused it was possible that the issues surrounding his selection may had distracted his performance.

He was pushed to discuss Aaron’s absence in the team and whether he would have done better but it was clear that there were no issues in relation to Aaron and discussed how close a call it had been referring to both of them as great fighters.

“To be honest it was a close call. Both Aaron and Lutalo are great fighters and it was a hard decision to make. Aaron could have been here today but I think Lutalo’s performances have just been rising, even past the Europeans actually and that’s why he was picked.

It was a difficult call. Aaron fought Garcia from Spain quite close recently and Garcia lost to Karami quite big earlier this year but today comes back and beats Karami, so it’s hard to say. The door is always open to Aaron and to anyone else who wants to make the team in the future.”

So the wait was then on to see if Garcia made it to the final although at that stage I have to admit to thinking that things were just not going to go our way. I saw it in Lutalo eyes and again when I spoke to Joseph.

After an anxious wait we watched as Garcia went through to the final giving Lutalo a chance in the repechage matches to fight for a bronze medal. Going out in his second fight though meant that he would have to win two matches for that podium place.

The big question was that after a disappointing match against Spain, just how much confidence would he have left? Was it now possible for him to raise his game under yet again more pressure?

Well the doubters were silenced. Lutalo came out onto the floor a different man and it was there for all to see that his selection was not as controversial as it had seemed.

He was up against previous World and Asian Games Champion Yousef Karami from Iran and beat him 11-7 in an amazing encounter.

Speaking to him after his match with Karami about him finding his form he stated, “Yes. I felt a lot better in that match but it’s not over yet and there is still a bronze medal match to go and I need to remain focused and hope I can deliver the goods there. Hopefully I can win a medal”

In his medal decider against Armenian Arman Yeremyan he won by an impressive 9 points to 3 securing the bronze medal, making him the first Team GB male player to win an Olympic medal.

He won both of these matches in style displaying his ability to throw head shots with speed and accuracy often doubling them up before placing his kicking leg back on the ground, much to the pleasure of an enthusiast crowd that in his own words helped him to bring out such a better performance.

After his win he stated, “We don’t normally get a second chance in regular taekwondo tournaments so once my coach had me mentally sound and ready to come back out I thought there is no way I am going to miss this opportunity, it’s a second chance and I didn’t feel like losing twice in one day.”

I asked him what his coach had said to him as he had obviously felt quite dejected initially but then was given a repechage chance. He stated, “You know. They said look. This bronze medal is now your gold medal so you have got to treat it like a final and go for it as if you are going for the gold medal. That got me in the right state mentally and you know this bronze medal is not the colour that I wanted but it was hard earned. I fought hard for it so I am very grateful and very happy that I’ve got this award and hopefully next time I can go two further and get the gold medal.”

I am sure that Lutalo will now continue to improve and will be a real force in both British and World Taekwondo.

With two great fighters in that category I am sure Aaron and Lutalo will continue to fight for places on the team, a rivalry I am sure that will only make them even better. Exciting times ahead!

The event though, totally belonged to Jade Jones in the -57kg category.

She dominated every match and outclassed all of her opponents starting off with a 15-1 win against Dragana Gladovic from Serbia, a win that no doubt would have made all competitors in her category very concerned.

She then met Japan’s Mayu Hamada, beating her just as impressively by 13 points to 3.

In the semi final she was up against world number one, Li-Cheng Tseng of Chinese Taipei but came back from behind to win the match.

Tseng took an early lead but Jade was having none of it. Known as “the head hunter” because she favours targeting her opponents head, it wasn’t long before she made one count to pull off a shock victory. She went on to win by 10 points to 6 securing her place in history as being the first Team GB player to make it to an Olympic final. 

The crowd had been behind the 19 year old Flint fighter throughout the day but even more so as she walked out onto the floor for the final time to face China’s Yuzhuo Hou, the current world champion.

The atmosphere was intense and you could just feel the crowd urging her on. Every point scored brought with it applause and everything just seemed to go right.

This match was just too important to take chances and although head shots were thrown, Jade scored all her points by attacking her opponents body very successfully, winning the match by 6 points to 4 much to the delight of the fans.

It was Britain’s 25th gold at the Games and made her the youngest member of Team GB to do so.   

After a tense last few seconds the victory was hers and she flung her protective helmet into the air before running around the arena with the Union flag in one hand and the Welsh flag in the other. The result was sweet revenge for Jones. She had lost to Hou in the final of last year’s world championships in a sudden death match.

“I always wanted to go in and win,” she said. “She took my world championship – that killed me. I wouldn’t let her beat me with a home crowd.”

She added: “It doesn’t feel real, it feels crazy. You can’t beat it, this is amazing.

“It’s the best moment of my whole life.”

Just after her win Jade spoke of how she was inspired to compete at London by watching Sarah Stevenson win Bronze in Beijing.

She was in ITF Taekwondo at the time so changed styles.

Four years on and she was training 4 to 5 hours a day 6 days a week at the Academy in Manchester and was keen to praise her coach Paul Green who she often describes as being amazing and a legend.

Having started Taekwondo at the age of 8 she was also keen to point out the importance of starting at an early age.

She also spoke of her concern at this event as she picked up a foot injury that required an injection, something she has not had to deal with before but had to on this occasion to continue with her dream of winning gold.

Often reduced to tears in training she also admitted to getting up as early as six in the morning to do additional training with Paul who was always pushing her to do more.

Asked if she thought the academy was one of the best in the world she was very complimentary about it stating, “Yes 100%. Our academy has just got bigger and better. The staff are amazing. We have just got absolutely everything that you need to become great really.”

Her preparations for the Games in the last few weeks included having a few top class competitors to spar with which included a Hungarian champion, several Korean players and an American competitor but made special mention of her coach again stating, “In the last couple of weeks I have been sparring with my coach Paul. I feel that if I can fight with him and score on him that I can fight any girl.”

Personally I would have to say Paul Green must be in very good shape to want to spar so regularly with an Olympic champion but it was so refreshing to hear an athlete with an Olympic gold medal in her hand be quick to praise people that have helped her to achieve that success.

I mentioned earlier that she still has a long way to go to equal the long and successful career that Sarah Stevenson enjoyed but after hearing that she intends to only take a short break before beginning her preparations for next year’s world championships and fully intends to go for gold again in Rio, then she will no doubt also be around for a long time, doing us all proud.

She admits that she still makes mistakes on the floor and is still getting stronger because of her age so with continued work who knows just how much better she may get and the fantastic thing about it is that she is British!

British Taekwondo can be well pleased with these results.

We only had a team of four but with two medalling and another coming really close our Taekwondo athletes did us proud and really have helped to inspire a nation to take up sport.

All British Taekwondo (WTF) clubs have reported a big increase in enquiries and people wanting to join.

That can only mean good things for the nation and in particular, good things for the martial art community generally.

Speaking to GB Taekwondo’s Performance Director, Gary Hall, after the final matches he stated that once again they will be looking at repeating the fighting chance initiative where fighters from other combat disciplines will be given the opportunity to trial for a place at the Academy, an initiative from 2009 which discovered a number of potential Olympic hopefuls that are still with the Academy today.

Hall was also pleased with the performances of our athletes not just at these Games but also at the last 2 major internationals, the 2011 World championships and the 2012 European championships where Team GB secured their best ever medal hauls.

He went on to say how these results will help with their funding application to UK Sport to help with preparations for the Games in Rio.

Summoning up the performances specifically at these Olympics though he stated,” The run up to the Games was tough for certain individuals but credit to the team and those around the team, they have stayed nose to the metal, pushed on and have worked really really hard and this has been a fantastic GB Taekwondo performance.

 The individuals that have been involved in that have done a great job and they have all got their own stories but it has been a great great successful Games for us. One gold, first ever female to get a gold medal, first ever gold medal for Great Britain Taekwondo and now a male medal as well. We have never done that before so it’s fantastic performance and fantastic progress.”

This was, without doubt an Olympic Games to remember.

Yes our Taekwondo team did us proud but so did all the other athletes in all 26 events here in London.

An Olympics that produced sporting superstars such as Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, Greg Rutherford and of course Usain Bolt all of whom I had the pleasure of meeting and being involved with their interviews to name but a few.

What I can also say is that everyone I met, from our very own Taekwondo athletes to the medallists from most of the other sports competing for Team GB, was that they were all very likeable individuals, many of them very humble in their finest hour, maybe something that sport at its highest level brings out in individuals, probably from the years of dedicated hard work and sacrifices that have to be made,

Truly inspirational. Really. So let’s not be complacent.

Use that inspiration to either get involved in sport yourself or to encourage others such as children to take something up from an early age.

 The next set of Olympic medals don’t have anyone’s names attached to them yet so being naturally bias here I would particularly encourage people to check out the British Taekwondo website ( www.britishtaekwondo.org.uk) and find a club near you and get started.

Just remember though, that not everyone can become an Olympic athlete but everyone can get involved in taking up one of the 26 sports represented at what has been described as the greatest Olympics ever.

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