Lutalo Muhammad: ‘I thought people were just excited to see taekwondo’
This Olympics has seen the rise of new British stars, from the likes of Tom Dean and Duncan Scott in the pool to Tom Pidcock and Georgia Taylor-Brown on a bike. But one of those who has shone brightest is someone who hasn’t actually competed.
That was not how Lutalo Muhammad originally planned it, with a third taekwondo medal in a third successive Olympics firmly in the 30-year-old’s sights before injury struck during qualification. It was a huge blow but Muhammad decided to dust himself off and take up the BBC’s offer to be a pundit for its coverage of the four days of taekwondo, working from the Olympic studio in Salford. It was a step into the unknown but one that paid off given how Muhammad performed. He was a revelation, seen most clearly in the online reaction to his punditry. Twitter, it is fair to say, blew up.
“It’s been lovely,” Muhammad says, reflecting on the hundreds of positive messages he has received from the public as well as from well-known names such as Johanna Konta and Gabby Logan. “Coming into it, my goal was to represent my sport as well as help people understand it. To see the reaction to my punditry – in person as well as on social media – has been hugely flattering.
“It was towards the end of day one that I started noticing I was getting a significant amount of attention. At first I thought it was just a reaction to people’s excitement at seeing taekwondo at the Olympics for the first time in five years, but as it went on I began to realise this was a little bit unusual.”
That was no doubt in part down to the enthralling nature of Team GB’s taekwondo performances – from Jade Jones’s shock defeat against the refugee Kimia Alizadeh to the so-close-yet-so-far nature of medals for Bradly Sinden, Lauren Williams and Bianca Walkden, it made for must-see television. Yet it says much for how Muhammad covered the contests that he was being spoken about almost as much as the competitors.
There was certainly no desire on Muhammad’s part to share the spotlight with people he regards as friends as much as teammates – and in the case of Sinden, a former flatmate – but that’s what happens when you bring the full package to punditry. And the boy from Walthamstow did that, effortlessly mixing humour and passion (the latter most vividly on display when he walked out of the studio after seeing Walkden lose her semi-final in agonising circumstances) with explanations of taekwondo’s nuances and rules, which appeared to be the aspect of Muhammad’s punditry most viewers admired.
“Really I was just trying my best to answer the questions that were put to me by the likes of Clare [Balding] and Alex [Scott],” he says. “I think what most people appreciated was that I did it in a quick and concise way.”
Muhammad also displayed a wonderful use of language, with his best line coming as he reflected on Jones’s defeat against Alizadeh and the 28-year-old’s admission that she had ultimately been gripped by fear. “Fear is a fire,” said Muhammad. “It can be used for good, to cook food or heat up your home, or it can get out of control and burn your house down. Sadly that’s what has happened to Jade.”
Reflecting on that comment a few days on, Muhammad is full of admiration for the honesty displayed by Jones, who had been seeking to become the first British woman to win gold medals at three consecutive Olympic Games. “It was incredibly brave of her as a double Olympic champion to admit vulnerability in that way,” he says.
“That’s been a theme of this Olympics … one of the reasons we love it so much is because it gives us the chance to see incredible athletes in action, but what we’re seeing now is a trend – from the likes of Jade, Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles – of incredible athletes being unafraid to admit they are human and suffer with the same issues around mental health and wellbeing that we all do. That’s hugely inspiring.”
Muhammad’s focus is now on reaching the 2024 Games in Paris and adding to the bronze and silver medals he won at London 2012 and Rio 2016 respectively. That means resuming training at Team GB’s taekwondo centre in Manchester, which he will do after a stint helping his father, Wayne, at the taekwondo club he runs in Hackney, east London.
“My dad was my first coach and the reason I wanted to be an Olympian in the first place,” Muhammad says. “I remember watching the 2000 Games on TV and him leaning over and saying: ‘You could do that one day – represent your country at the Olympics.’ That’s where it all started and 12 years later, in London, I achieved my dream.”
The dream lives on but Muhammad has also been bitten by the punditry bug. Contrary to reports he has not been approached by the BBC to continue working for the broadcaster during this Olympics but, should the call come, a positive response would be on hand.
“I’m a fan of all combat sports so I would definitely be interested in doing stuff around the boxing,” Muhammad says. “But if my time as a pundit has come to an end – at this Olympics and beyond – that’s fine. I enjoyed it immensely and am more than happy to get back to the day job of kicking people.”