Following the decision of the British Olympic Association last week (June 8) to ratify Lutalo Muhammad’s London Team GB nomination, GB Performance Director, Gary Hall, feels the time is right to clarify some of the misinformed comments and criticism levelled at the sport’s governing body.
Previously restricted by confidentially clauses to protect the rights of the athletes involved, Hall speaks openly and candidly about a difficult few weeks for all involved.
And Hall re-iterates his belief that former Academy member, Aaron Cook, still has a major part to play in the sport’s future.
Hall starts by defending the decision to choose 21-year-old European champion Muhammad for the -80kg weight category in London.
HALL SAID: “Hopefully, we can start concentrating on what we are here to do. It was a huge decision; made for the right reasons.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge but you have got to take hard decisions in sport. It was long and arduous for the Selection Panel but these guys are experts in their field.
“They know what they are looking for and they know what the competition is going to be like in London. So they selected who they believe will be the right man for the job.
“We’ve had criticism levelled at us, suggesting that the process hasn’t been transparent but all of our selection documents have been reviewed by UK Sport and the BOA and they were made available to every athlete wishing to be considered for selection. What has been flagged is that the policy wasn’t available on our website but we consciously took the decision not to have sensitive information accessible to our competitors on our site. And we made it clear to all of the British Taekwondo members, via our website, how they could obtain a copy of the policy if they wanted to be considered for selection.
“I do accept that this selection might not have been everyone’s choice of player. But at the end of the day we had to make a decision on performance and that’s what we have done.
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WISH HAD DONE BETTER? OR COULD HAVE DONE BETTER?
“The first decision that was reached was fair. We followed a similar procedure to that used for the World Championships last year and again for the Europeans. The process differs very little for the Olympics, the Worlds and the Europeans.
“Both Aaron and Lutalo have previously been selected through that procedure with no issues. All the other Olympic players were selected with no issue. It wasn’t the decision Aaron was looking for and I understand that.
“However, he went to appeal and we took on board the recommendations from Sport Resolutions about the procedure we should use. So we were surprised when the BOA didn’t ratify it first time round. The BOA recommended that we should not give disproportionate weighting to any of the selection considerations and they also wanted both athletes to have their personal coaches at the selection meeting as well as a BOA legal observer.
“At the final selection meeting, the BOA had an observer present and both athletes were represented too. We went further than was initially required so as to get this right because we recognised the importance of the decision.
“There were legal restrictions linked to the appeal which restricted what we could say and we felt we had to respect those confidentiality terms for the benefit of both athletes. That obviously hindered us in trying to get an earlier response out to those asking questions of the selection decision. That clearly hasn’t helped us.
“We’d like to have said more about what was happening at an earlier stage but you have to respect the position of the athletes involved in these situations.
“But at the end of the day you have to allow the experts to make their decision. We’ve had unparalleled success over the past two years and in the last three major championships we’ve won fifteen World and European medals. These guys know what they are doing.”
DO YOU KNOW HOW OTHER GOVERNING BODIES DO THEIR SELECTION?
“We do talk to other sports about their policies and we believe our selection procedures are similar to other federations. As I’ve said, the procedure for the Games isn’t radically different to that for other events and we liaised with the BOA and UK Sport in developing the Olympic selection policy.
But the stakes are obviously so much higher for what is a home Olympics. And that’s obviously why selection is getting so much attention not just in taekwondo but across a number of Olympic sports.
“You can have as many policies as you want and the very best of procedures but if the outcome isn’t what one party expects or wants then you are always going to have challenges. That’s part of life.
“I can understand the expectation surrounding Aaron who is a world class player. But people are not giving Lutalo the credit he is due.
WHAT PEOPLE MIGHT BE STRUGGLING TO UNDERSTAND IS WHY LUTALO HAS BEEN SELECTED AHEAD OF THE WORLD NO.1?
“There has been a lot of talk of Aaron’s ranking and he’s done fantastically well to reach that top ranked position. The world governing body’s ranking system is well respected but the fact remains that the world ranking system has never been a key consideration in the GB team selection policies.
“Rankings are important insofar as they influence seeding at major events, as they will at the Olympics. But our main focus has always been on performance capability and particularly the ability to perform at major championships. Had we suddenly given ranking greater prominence during selection on account of Aaron’s ascent to number 1 then we would have been contravening our selection policy.
“Bear in mind that Lutalo has now risen to no.7 in the world in the -87kg rankings. Had he been given the chance to compete in the Euros at -80kg and won, then his ranking at -80kg would clearly be higher. People can point to the difference in ranking but the simple fact is that we’ve had to choose between two supremely talented current European Champions.
“Lutalo has improved massively over the past 9 months and has performed incredibly well in his three competitions this year, medalling in each of them. He beat Aaron at the German Open, under Olympic conditions and he’s now a European champion.
“More importantly, the selectors feel he has the game to win at the Olympic Games and that ultimately is what this is all about. He’s well placed to benefit from the new interpretation of the head-shot touch rule which is a key factor, whatever people say. The style in which he fights is incredibly difficult to plan against which is crucial going into the Games and gives us a performance advantage. And his temperament is first class.
“Aaron is a fantastic fighter too but we had to consider the risks involved in his selection such as the fact that he often takes matches too close against lesser opposition as much as quality opposition. He is an entertaining fighter, no doubt about it. But that can be high risk too and we can’t afford to take risks with the Olympic Games.”
SO YOU CAN CATEGORICALLY DENY ALL THESE ACCUSATIONS THAT THE DECISION WAS MADE PURELY FOR POLITICAL REASONS. THAT AARON LEFT THE ACADEMY LAST YEAR AND THIS WAS A WAY OF GETTING YOUR OWN BACK?
“Aaron left the Academy and we respected his decision. The door remains open to him if he ever wishes to return as we’ve always said. Since leaving the Academy he’s been selected to represent Great Britain at the Olympic Test Event in 2011 and the 2012 European Championships where he received the full support of our coaching and high performance team as well have all his associated costs and expenses covered, as you would expect.
“It’s worth noting that we also had four other players at the European Championships who worked outside the Academy. They were also competing for Olympic places and all received the same preparation and support during the pre-European training camp..
“This accusation has been levelled at us as a smokescreen for the real reason as to why the selection decision did not go his way this time.
“In the end, the decision was made purely for performance reasons. We have a duty, as we’ve said consistently and as is clearly stated in the selection policy, to select the athletes we feel give Great Britain the best chance of medalling at the Games, or any other Championships for that matter. That ultimately is what we are measured against. We only have four medal opportunities at the Games, that’s all and so we can’t afford to take selection lightly or to compromise with any one individual selection place.
DO YOU ACCEPT THERE IS MORE PRESSURE ON LUTALO NOW BECAUSE OF WHAT HAS HAPPENED WHEN HE GETS TO LONDON?
“Certainly pressure has been applied because of the negative nature of the press and media. It applies pressure to us all within the team and it applies pressure to the sport.
“But if you can read it in a balanced way you will realise that it has been one-sided, largely because of the commercial nature of this being the biggest sporting event in the world and in being in our back yard. It’s clear that many sports are coming under pressure from external agencies when it comes to selection. The stakes are so high for so many but we can only do what we feel is right for Team GB and for the sport.
“It is unfair if there is pressure placed on Lutalo. But he is a calm guy and has been given a vote of confidence by the selectors. Hopefully, everyone will get behind him.
“His selection, if you sit and read some of the papers, is seen as an unfair choice. But I assure you this lad is a world class athlete. He is a current European champion and you do not achieve that unless you are supremely talented.
YOU HAVE MENTIONED PREVIOUSLY ABOUT THE HATE MAIL LUTALO HAS RECEIVED. SO IS YOUR WISH THAT THE BRITISH PUBLIC GET BEHIND HIM IN LONDON? IT WOULD BE UNPRECEDENTED IF THE CROWD TURN ON HIM BECAUSE THEY ARE ALL AARON COOK SUPPORTERS?
“Selection is any sport or team is tough. You look at footballers who don’t get into the national squad and you think it’s unjust. Headlines do sell newspapers and we do now hope that we can move on from the unbalanced reporting on this issue
“It has been difficult for Lutalo and he’s had to deal with some very unpleasant comments. That should not be happening and to Aaron’s credit he has come out and said he doesn’t condone it.
“Lutalo represented Britain with great pride at the European Championship and won the first gold medal at those championships.
“I am sure the crowd will get behind him in London, his home town. He is an incredibly likeable and popular young man and I hope now that he will get everybody’s full support in the lead up to the Games.
“The right man has been selected for this job. That doesn’t mean Aaron won’t be selected in the future, I am sure he will.
“I do hope the British public will get behind Lutalo and the rest of the British team. There are three other world medallists in this team and we can’t forget them.
THERE HAVE BEEN SUGGESTIONS THIS COULD BE THE END OF AARON’S CAREER. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THAT?
“He has definitely got a bright future ahead of him. He is a world class player, hard working and someone who is respected. That shouldn’t be forgotten.
“I do understand the disappointment but my advice would be to get back on the mat as soon as possible and take up the reserve spot to carry on working towards London in case he gets the call.
“If he doesn’t get the call, we still have a World Championships in June next year. We do hope he puts himself back into contention for next year.”
HOW HARD HAS ALL THE CONTROVERSY BEEN FOR YOU? WITH ALL THE CRITICISM OF YOU AND GB TAEKWONDO, WERE YOU ALWAYS CONVINCED YOU WERE RIGHT AND THAT YOU COULD SEE IT THROUGH?
“It has been hard for me, my family and everyone associated with this decision. But I have taken great heart from the support of the staff at GB Taekwondo and also from the wider British taekwondo community. We have had unfair criticism and we accept that decisions don’t always win you popularity contests.
“We want to win major medals and we believe the people who make those decisions know what they are doing. We have to stay confident and believe in what we are doing, particularly in light of all our recent successes.
“The other athletes in the squad remember taekwondo when we were struggling to win medals and they do know that hard decisions have to be made. And remember there were four other athletes contesting for that -80kg place. They haven’t got the spot but they have put that behind them and are getting behind Lutalo in his bid to become Olympic champion.
“Some of the press we have received was unfair. We have been unable to go on the offensive because a lot of what was being said was confidential stuff that we could not get involved in.
“We were bound by confidentiality clauses. But now we can say more to hopefully give the story more balance.”
WOULD YOU CONSIDER REVIEWING THE SELECTION POLICY.OR ARE YOU HAPPY WITH THE WAY IT IS?
“This policy has been in place for a number of years and we’ve never had any major issues. One thing we have considered, because of the depth of quality we are building in the various weight categories, is that we may have to review some aspects of it. We are getting a depth in Great Britain now that we are all proud of.
“But I don’t think it should be reviewed based on one selection decision. Other sports have had appeals because the prize in the Olympics is so high. The BOA also admitted there have been an unprecedented number of appeals.
“You would be silly to change your selection policy lock, stock and barrel. Clearly some selection decisions will go against athletes and some will go for them.
“It is structured in a way that gives fairness and transparency. It gives athletes who want to win World, European and Olympic medals a chance to show they have the ability to compete at that level.
“We are in touch with the WTF as we know they are looking to undertake a review. We will of course give them our full cooperation. And we will have our own review after the Olympics and we will take on board the comments and feedback we have received when we plan for the Rio 2016 cycle.
“What needs to be remembered here is that our performances at the Games, as well as those successes in recent Championships, have a major bearing on funding for the sport in the next four year cycle. We can’t take decisions on selection lightly when we have so much at stake in the long term.”
WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES FINALLY FOR THE OLYMPICS? WHAT ARE YOUR TARGETS FOR LONDON 2012
“I have no doubt we can medal in all four categories. I have no doubt we will be the best prepared team by the time we get to the Olympics. We cannot guarantee results and medals. But we will be in there and we will be competing for medals in the best shape we can.
“And we do hope the players and their fans get their reward in the shape of Olympic medals.”