London 2012: Lutalo Muhammad ready to prove his worth

By Nick HopeBBC Olympic sports reporter

In the latest part of our weekly#olympicthursdayexternal-linkseries profiling leading British hopes, Olympic sports reporter Nick Hope speaks to European taekwondo champion Lutalo Muhammad.

A months ago, few outside the GB Taekwondo set-up knew the name Lutalo Muhammad.

Fast-forward to the middle of June and that is no longer the case, following the the 21-year-old's surprise selection ahead of Aaron Cook in Team GB for this summer's Olympic Games.

Countless column inches have been devoted to the debate, with high-profile former athletes and Cook's management team airing their views publicly as taekwondo found itself the centre of attention for the first time.

But it had an unexpected and certainly undesired consequence as 'fans' of world number one Cook sent vicious hate mail to Muhammad via social media.

"A lot of the stuff that I received I don't want to even repeat, it was quite hurtful," Muhammad told BBC Sport.

"A lot of people didn't appreciate that I've had a good Europeans and all I've tried to do is perform to the best of my ability.

"When people start sending you hate mail and calling you names I think it's quite childish, but I'm trying to forget about that and focus on London 2012 and getting on the top of the podium."

His philosophical outlook perhaps comes from his upbringing.

Raised in Walthamstow, less than five miles away from the Olympic Park, Muhammad has a unique insight into the importance of the Games in the surrounding community.

"It's no secret that the area in London that I'm from, some parts of it are a bit rough. There's quite a few disadvantaged youngsters in particular and some areas could do with more development," he said.

"As a representative of that borough [Waltham Forest], I think I have a responsibility to carry myself in a certain way and to be a role model.

"I love the fact that a lot of the children can be inspired by some of my achievements and then aspire to do things in the sport themselves one day - I embrace that."

Muhammad, who is now based in Manchester, says that support from back home has been key over the last month.

"Even when the media frenzy was at it's highest they've been very supportive, and I feel almost indebted to them for really keeping me confident and not letting me get too low," he said.

His Olympic dream was initiated by his father, Wayne, a keen martial arts competitor himself who still owns and runs a club in Hackney.

"My dad was teaching me from the age of three and took me to my first tournaments when I was eight," said Muhammad.

"We were both watching the [2000] Sydney Olympics on TV and he just nudged me and went, 'Hey, do you want to maybe go for this one day?'

"Being a kid I was like, 'Yeah, whatever', not really realising what a big decision I'd just made!

"He was my sole coach all the way up to nine months ago, when I joined the academy, and I owe him everything."

Muhammad became a member of the GB Taekwondo set-up in August last year, shortly after Cook quit the programme.

However, they could have been training partners had the Londoner not turned down an offer after impressing during a UK Sport Talent ID programmeexternal-link in 2010.

"At the time I was just beginning my university degree and I just couldn't sort out staying at my university and being a GB Taekwondo athlete at the same time, so unfortunately I had to let that go," reflected Muhammad.

A year on he was able to establish a distance learning programme for his Sports Science degree at Middlesex University and moved to Manchester.

"As much as I love taekwondo, I'll only be able to do it for maybe 10 more years so I really want to set myself up with a viable career for after my life in taekwondo has finished," he said.

Straight talking and 'rapid' improvements in the sport aside, over the same nine-month period Cook has claimed nine tournament victories to Muhammad's one.

However, Cook's first-round elimination at last year's World Championships is believed to have worked against him, as has his inability to gain an outright win in the European Championships, with the Dorset-born fighter relying on his opponent, Ramin Azizov, being disqualified to take gold.

Performance director Gary Hall has insisted there is no "witch-hunt" against Cook, but that Muhammad's fighting style was felt to be more "tactically beneficial" for success in London.

"There are some points that Aaron concedes against world-class opposition, but also low-grade players, that can lead to an inability to dominate the top level matches, and those were the considerations of the panel," stated Hall.

"Lutalo has done really well, from the German Open [silver medal] and Dutch Open [bronze medal] to then winning a European Championship gold in a world class field was a phenomenal performance, so don't underestimate him."

Although Cook could potentially take his appeal against his Olympic omission to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Muhammad insists he is focused on climbing the podium this summer and is hoping an "element of surprise" can give him an advantage.

"Unfortunately the nature of sport means there are always going to be winners and losers, so I wish him all the best for his future, but my focus right now is not Aaron Cook, it's a gold medal in London," concluded Muhammad.

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