“The Journey Is Far From Over” — Lutalo Muhammad, Olympian
BY Jennifer Lee O'Brien
It’s a Saturday afternoon and Lutalo Muhammad is trying to quote Socrates.
“I think it might have been Socrates that said, ‘Every step you take is headed towards your goal,’” he says. And then he laughs in the way Lutalo laughs, which feels boundless. “Well, I’m paraphrasing. But it’s something like that.”
Stories, like this one about Socrates, have existential significance to Lutalo. They’re like mini manuals for becoming who you want to be, whether that’s an Olympian or an entrepreneur or just the very best version of yourself. He likes stories about redefining the impossible, defeating rivals, moments of self-realisation and claiming glory. Legends; the kind that follow feet like train steam around basketball courts and stick to rugby pitch grass like dew. The kind of stories that get reduced down into glazey affirmations; retold from coach to athlete, generation to generation.
Usually stories about Socrates are told by Plato, the Don of Greek philosophy and Socrates’ most famous student. This story, paraphrased by Lutalo, Great Britain’s silver medallist in taekwondo, is told by motivational public speaker Brian Tracy in his book Time Power: A Proven System for Getting More Done in Less Time Than You Ever Thought Possible.
It goes: one day, in Ancient Greece, a weary traveller meets an old man on the road. (Surprise! It’s Socrates.) The traveller asks the old man (Socrates) how to get to Mount Olympus.
Socrates replies, “If you really want to get to Mount Olympus, just make sure that every step you take is headed in that direction.”
Lutalo likes self-help books like Time Power; books with titles that tell you Exactly What They Are About and What You Can Gain By Reading Them. So does Lutalo’s father, Wayne.
“My dad is a huge fan of Brian Tracy, Les Brown; all those great motivational speakers,” says Lutalo. “I grew up with the mantra, ‘the goals you set are the goals you get.’ Things like that.”
He tells us another mantra. And then he laughs, in that boundless way, like we’re sharing an inside joke.
“That was my childhood,” he says.
Lutalo’s childhood was spent in Walthamstow, north east London. His father, Wayne, is a long-term practitioner of martial arts; he began teaching in 1997 and opened the Taekwondo Academy in Stoke Newington in 2010. He is also Lutalo’s coach.
Family is important to Lutalo; he often credits his success as an athlete to hard work and a positive attitude — traits he’s learned from his parents.
“Both my parents were motivators,” he says. “Always positive energy, positive vibes.”
In the Muhammad household, big dreams are fulfilled through an everyday commitment to self-improvement. His father introduced Lutalo to taekwondo when he was three. His mother, Marcia, introduced him to books.
These days, Lutalo is known for the taekwondo. As the Silver medallist at the Summer Olympics in Rio; the Bronze medallist from
the Summer Olympics in London. The Walthamstow Warrior. The rival to British-born Moldovan Taekwondo athlete Aaron Cook. The winner of Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need. The Olympian who lost the Gold at the last minute; the one who cried.
“Oh, okay!” says Lutalo, when we ask him about books.
Lutalo says ‘Oh, okay!’ often. The way he says it is drawn out and excited, like a new chapter of conversation is about to begin; like a fresh start. ‘Oh, okay!’ is what Lutalo says when he’s asked a question that interests him.
Most questions interest Lutalo; he’s interested in people, and what they have to ask. He could be asked a question a thousand times, and he’ll say ‘Oh, okay!’ and it makes you feel like you’re being particularly insightful; like he’s never been asked it before. And isn’t that nice?
“Oh, okay!” says Lutalo. “Well, reading is a great passion that my mum passed on to me. When I was a little boy, fun weekends were going to the library.”
When Lutalo was a little boy, he would read books by Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis. Now, at twenty-five, his favourite authors are Nick Hornby, Mike Gayle and Malorie Blackman. “And from my dad, the self-help stuff as well,” he says. “Tony Robbins, Napoleon Hill.”
And autobiographies. His favourite is by American Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson, called Slaying the Dragon: How to Turn Your Small Steps to Great Feats. Which sounds like a self-help book that might contain a story about old man Socrates.
Lutalo likes coming-of-age books, too. Books about the challenges of growing up, and self-discovery. When we ask him for an example, he gives J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.
He laughs. “Really, whatever I can get my hands on.”
The moment that Lutalo decided to become a gold-medal winning Olympian is a story he tells again and again. He was with his father, it was the year 2000, and it was summer.
“To become a champion my dad would tell me to act like a champion, be like a champion,” says Lutalo. “I was really blessed to have such a great relationship with my dad.”
In the summer of 2000 the Olympics were hosted by Sydney and by coincidence — or providence — it was taekwondo’s first Olympics as an official sport. Lutalo, aged nine with a black belt, was watching the gold medal match on television with his father.
“Would you like to do this one day?” said father to son.
“Yeah, sure!” said Lutalo. And so the intention was set; from that day forward, Lutalo Muhammad was going to be a gold-medal winning Olympian. He didn’t know it then (and how could he?); but that moment, that ‘yeah, sure!’, said like he’d been offered a bowl of ice cream, was going to fit into Chapter One of his own story. The Story of Lutalo Muhammad: Olympian.
“From then on, that’s when the Olympic dream started,” says Lutalo. “I had no idea the enormous decision that had been made; but I had fantastic parents who took every single one of my aspirations seriously.
“The journey is far from over,” he adds. “But it makes you feel really blessed.”
There is a quote that’s been attributed or, more likely, misattributed, to the Dalai Lama.
It goes: ‘Sometimes, not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck’, and we first heard it from Lutalo.
On the 19th of August 2016 a video was posted on YouTube, titled ‘Lutalo Muhammad. One of the most heartbreaking interviews you’ll ever see in sport.’
On that day, Lutalo was in Rio at the summer Olympics representing Great Britain in the men’s +80kb taekwondo. It was a Friday, and he had made it to the final.
Let’s take a paragraph to consider the strange, expansive, volatile space between one second and the next. From one second to the next you can live or die, or win or lose, and that’s a basic, binary perspective on life, and gosh, is it ever depressing! But it feels true, this one-second-to-the-next business; at least some of the time.
Another paragraph, to illustrate. There you are, all your dreams ahead of you; the view from a pilot’s seat on a clear morning when the clouds look like cotton. And then you’re tumbling from the sky into searing hot darkness. That is the power, of one second to the next.
For Lutalo, it was a Friday and it was the final; a match against Cheick Sallah Cisse of the Ivory Coast. And Lutalo was winning.
Four years ago, he’d won the bronze in London. A good start, he thought. But once that bronze medal was around his neck, he closed his eyes and imagined the weight of gold. Every day afterwards, for four years, all he could think about was gold, gold, gold. Because Lutalo was a champion. And now he was in Rio, he was in the finals and he was winning.
There is no better place to observe the strangeness of winning and losing than sport; specifically, on television or the internet, where you can pause, rewind, slow it all down and watch it over, over and over again.
Look! Did you see it? For a second there, we caught a glimpse of the absurd, cosmic frontier that exists between winning and losing. And isn’t it so every day, so pertinent to our lives, this winning and losing business? Because every day, whether we know it or not, we are winning and losing; with each choice, step, breath we are teetering along a tightrope line of joy and despair.
Watch here, the plummet. One second Lutalo Muhammad was a gold medal champion; his view was the sky, he was gliding over sunbeams.
Lutalo was going to win, and he was going to fly back in the first class reclining seats, the gold around his neck. And then one reverse turning kick to the head, in the last second, and it was over. He had been winning 6-4, and in that last second, he lost by that four-point kick.
And so his heart broke, and so he cried, and it was all on camera and, within hours, it was online and the whole world was watching.
“I remember they got some old legends to come speak to us,” says Lutalo. “One of them said, ‘There is nothing like the Olympics’.
“And I remember thinking, ‘Oh, okay. You’re supposed to say that’. But when you get there, when you get to the Village, you realise everything is on the line.”
Sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck, but tell that to Lutalo on the 19th of August 2016. Lutalo, who had spent four years, and another seventeen before that, training for that second that he was winning, before the one after, when he wasn’t. Not getting what you want, when you’ve spent most of your life working and dreaming for it, can feel like the sky has shattered like glass around you.
And so when the reporters put a camera in front of his face, minutes after the match when in a second he went from winning to losing, Lutalo cried.
“I’m so distraught,” he said. And then he apologised to the people who had stayed up late in Britain to watch him win a silver medal in Rio. And he apologised for crying.
“I’m proud that I contributed to GB’s record-breaking tally but… it should have been a gold medal,” he said.
It was one of the most heartbreaking interviews you’ll ever see in sport.
Four days later, Lutalo got on a charter aeroplane carrying three-hundred and twenty GB athletes and their support staff. It was eleven hours and fifteen minutes back to London. We imagine he listened to music, chatted with friends, watched a film and ate food. Maybe he opened up a book to read, and saw all his glazey affirmations had dried off the pages like chalk dust.
“We got to Heathrow and there were people with placards and Team GB fans and we got such a warm welcome,” says Lutalo.
“It’s funny how things have worked out; but I feel very blessed that I’ve touched people’s hearts, and that they empathise with me. And that gives me the motivation and inspiration I need to go get that gold the next time.”
It was midway through our conversation that Lutalo said: ‘Sometimes, not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck’. Later, we thought of all the different ways you can say the same thing, and how often these are the things we say all the time. So often, they become cliche.
And then we thought of how close we all are to that frontier of winning and losing. And the kind of champion it takes to laugh boundlessly, even in defeat.
During the months following his silver medal win, Lutalo marched in parades, spoke at schools, attended dinners and spoke to the press. He was a participant on Celebrity Mastermind and Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need. He ate ice cream, often.
On the 18th of December 2016, Lutalo vlogged from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards, dressed in a suit and a red paisley tie. He was charming and funny, and laughed with Olympic triathlete Jonny Brownlee about how had he cried on TV. And he laughed, and laughed and laughed.
“You know what the best things about the Olympic Village is?” says Lutalo. “The camaraderie with GB athletes. We’re all wearing the same tracksuits, so you know, egos are put to one side. We’re all there, one team, one unit to support each other.
“For me, that’s what makes the Olympics so special. Yes it’s great to go to a huge taekwondo tournament and get the respect from people in your sport, but when you get to make friends with people in other sports — virtually every sport — that’s an amazing feeling.”
It’s stories like the one that old man Socrates tells, that keep us going. You know the kind. Stories about redefining the impossible, defeating rivals, moments of self-realisation and claiming glory. The kinds of legends that follow feet like train steam around basketball courts and stick to rugby pitch grass like dew. Stories about winning and losing, from one second to the next; not getting what you want and taking another step, in spite of it all.
“I want to make that my philosophy,” says Lutalo. “Everything I do is towards that goal. So right now, I’ve got the world championship in June being held in South Korea; it’ll be the first big step to winning that gold medal. I’m going to take it year by year. Every tournament, every training session, every performance is all based on winning that gold medal.”
And we believe him.
Originally published in The City Talking: Sport.