Muhammad and Sansum fight for Rio place

Lutalo Massop Muhammad and Damon Sansum

Lutalo Muhammad (left) beat British rival Damon Sansum (right) to claim World Taekwondo Grand Prix silver in October 2015

Keeping calm while someone is trying to kick you in the head makes taekwondo tricky to master – but even Britain’s best become a little flustered when the words ‘Olympic selection’ are mentioned.

Four years ago, GB Taekwondo became embroiled in arguably the biggest pre-London Olympic controversy when it picked rising star Lutalo Muhammad over then world number one Aaron Cook.

After a bitter legal battle, Muhammad was eventually given the nod by the British Olympic Association (BOA) and went on to claim 2012 bronze.

This week, at the European Championships in Switzerland, GB fighters will have the final chance to prove their Rio potential before the 2016 squad is selected.

Olympic champion Jade Jones (-57kg), world gold medallist Bianca Walkden (+67kg) and leading +87kg heavyweight Mahama Cho look certainties for their respective divisions, while Cook – somewhat bizarrely – had his nationality purchased by Moldova last year and will fight for them in Brazil.


Olympic champion Jones won gold at the German Open last month

However, Muhammad’s road to Rio has been far from simple to navigate with new GB rival – Damon Sansum, a former kick-boxing world champion who won taekwondo world silver in 2015 – a serious contender.

Only one fighter can represent Team GB in the -80kg category this summer.

Who is leading the fight?

Demonstrating the ability to win an Olympic medal is a key component for GB selection and Sansum had the edge after securing world silver last year.

However, Muhammad responded with victory at the Manchester World Taekwondo Grand Prix and secured Britain a -80kg berth through his end-of-year world ranking.

Despite missing the start of the season through injury, he is fourth in the Olympic -80kg standings, with Sansum eighth, but both are confident of their prospects.

“I’ve been in hiding and doing secret training and I’m ready to show the world what they’ve been missing,” Muhammad told BBC Sport.

“Rio is in my mind every day, but I’d rather not talk about selection, I want to focus on winning the Olympic gold medal – that’s what I’m aiming for.”

Sansum believes improvements and regular medal-winning performances since switching sports prove his potential.

“It was difficult to adapt when I first moved over and London 2012 came too soon, but I’ve become much more consistent since then,” he said.

“I transferred over because it was my dream to compete in an Olympics which you can’t do in kick-boxing and I think I’ve shown I’m a serious medal contender.”


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Take a tour of GB Taekwondo’s new home

Controversial kit changes could have an impact

World Taekwondo has attempted to reinvent the sport after a series of controversial results – many of which came at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

They included Briton Sarah Stevenson being initially eliminated, despite a late fight-winning head-kick, before a threatened walkout by all athletes saw her reinstated and ultimately win bronze.

Although officials are still involved, points are now largely scored by athletes striking electronic pads mounted around the body and within headgear, which reduces the subjectivity of results.

However, the sport’s governing body has become almost obsessed with change, and much to the frustration of athletes the equipment has again been revised just months before Rio 2016.

“Changing it this close is a bit confusing,” Sansum told BBC Sport.

“It’s hard to score and you find people winning through penalties rather than kicks because the head guards are inconsistent, but whoever adapts the quickest has the best chance of winning.”

Muhammad added: “Things keep changing and there’s new stuff to be aware of, but I’m confident my style and technique will work.”


Muhammad won bronze in the -80kg at the 2015 European Games

Muhammad v Sansum a repeat of London 2012?

To say Cook v Muhammad was a bitter battle would be an understatement, with the London Olympian – who received hate mail during the appeals process – adamant his rival took the fight too far.

There has been noticeable tension between the pair when they have fought since, but Muhammad insists his relationship with Sansum is completely different.

“This isn’t like other rivalries I’ve had in the past – there’s nothing but respect here,” he said.

“It [pre-London 2012] was incredibly tough and no other athlete had to go through those circumstances, but it made me tougher mentally and I do try to take that into the ring.”

While Cook was outside of the British set-up, training with his own team before London 2012, Sansum believes Britain has benefited from having two leading -80kg fighters sparring with each another as part of the same programme pre-Rio.

“Our team has so much talent and with the strength in depth we’re always pushing one another,” he said.

“When you see someone like Lutalo lifting big in the gym, you want to go bigger. When he’s kicking hard, that motivates you more.”


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Muhammad misses out on gold to Oueslati

Could a ‘fight-off’ decide Olympic selection?

Fight-offs could have been used to decide as many as three of the four British Taekwondo London Olympic places, but GB selectors are not great supporters of the idea.

Muhammad leads Sansum 3-1 in the career head-to-head, but results against high-profile opponents will have a greater bearing on selection.

“I would do anything to get into the Olympics, but I’m not that big a fan of fight-offs,” said Sansum, though Muhammad admits it “would be a great watch”.

With only one athlete per nation allowed to compete in each division at the Europeans, Muhammad and Sansum will be kept apart.

Muhammad has the advantage of competing in the Olympic category on Saturday, with Sansum in -87kg action on Sunday, but results for both fighters will count significantly towards Rio selection.

Great Britain squad in full (19-22 May):


-54kg: Hassan Haider; -58kg: Feyi Pearce; -63kg: Bradly Sinden; -68 kg: Benjamin Haines; -74kg: Christian McNeish ; -80kg: Lutalo Muhammad; -87kg: Damon Samsun; +87kg: Mahama Cho, Lyle Walker.


-49kg: Charlie Maddock; -57kg: Jade Jones; -62kg: Rachelle Booth; -67kg: Lauren Williams; -73kg: Jade Slavin; +73kg: Bianca Walkden.

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