The higher the stakes the more Jade Jones seems to like it. Four years ago she was a memorable teenage champion at the London Olympics and British taekwondo’s golden girl has now kicked and punched her way to fresh success in Rio. Her compelling blend of whirling feet and controlled aggression has once again left the world sprawling.
At times it is like watching a north Wales-bred relative of Elastigirl from The Incredibles. A rough translation of taekwondo is ‘Kick Fist Art’ and there is no need to be a Korean grandmaster to appreciate the strong, balletic skills of the 23-year-old. After she rounded off a near-perfect day by defeating Spain’s Eva Calvo Gomez 16-7 in the final, her joyous, flag-waving lap of honour around the arena said it all.
Nicknamed “The Headhunter” for her no-nonsense methods, the top seed swept past her three earlier opponents, expertly defusing the threat of Sweden’s Nikita Glasnovic of Sweden in the semi-final to win 9-4. The final was potentially trickier but the tall Spaniard, ranked second in the world and a well-known counter-attacking threat, was picked off expertly in a spectacular final round.
To be a double Olympic champion at such a young age may take time to sink in. “It still doesn’t seem real that I won it in London so to win it again is just crazy,” admitted Jones. “I didn’t realise how much pressure I’d feel coming into these Games; I started crying before my semi-final because I felt so nervous but I pulled it off when it mattered. I’m so happy. I knew inside that I was the best but you can still lose. That’s such a scary feeling.”
Jones could hardly have started the final better, twice scoring three points for expertly-aimed kicks to her opponent’s red headguard. The second was the subject of a video review but the Spaniard’s appeal was refused, giving Jones a 6-0 cushion at the end of the first round. The second round was a different story, however, leaving the contest delicately poised at 7-6 entering the final two minutes. The GB fans need not have worried, a flurry of chorus-line high kicks deciding the outcome in style. It is GB’s 22nd gold – and 56th medal – of an increasingly productive Games.
Jones generally seems more assured in all areas than she was in 2012. Her gold medal in London caught her 19-year-old self slightly by surprise; for a while she found the attention difficult and subsequent motivation elusive. Now she is a much more experienced competitor and it shows; her only loss in the last 18 months came by a single point at the world championships last year after the electronic scoring system crashed during her quarter-final.
What has not altered since London is her competitiveness under pressure and her coach Paul Green reckons she has dealt brilliantly with being the pre-Games favourite: “She is better tactically than she was four years ago. She understands the game better, she is a lot faster and stronger than her opponents and she always rises on the big days.”
Nerve and cobra-like watchfulness are also key prerequisites. In taekwondo the trick is to score via kicks to the trunk of the body or the head, allied to the occasional body punch, and be suitably evasive when required. Matches consist of three rounds of two minutes each and Jones loves to take the initiative early. There was certainly no hint of nerves in the early part of the day as she outclassed Morocco’s Naima Bakkal 12-4 in her opening match before beating Belgium’s ninth-seeded Raheleh Asemani 7-2 to reach the last four.
These days, to facilitate better scoring, electronic sensors are embedded into the athlete’s protective head and body armour in addition to special sensing socks. There could certainly be no disputing the two productive kicks, worth three points apiece, that earned a 7-1 lead over Asemani after the first round of her quarter-final alone.
The world champion Mayu Hamada was less fortunate, bowing out unexpectedly in the quarter-finals, but Jones never wavered. Taekwondo fights are as much about speed, thought and execution as brute strength and self-control and fighting spirit are also a crucial part of the mix. Attempting to kick someone in the face requires a certain mindset and Rio’s muggers would be well advised to give the sharp-footed Jones a wide berth. The bronzes went to Kimla Alizadeh Zenoorin, the first Iranian woman ever to secure an Olympic medal, and Egypt’s Hedaya Wahba.
Another fascinating day of martial art intrigue, meanwhile, awaits in the upcoming men’s 80kg competition where Britain’s Lutalo Muhammad finds himself in the same draw as his old foe Aaron Cook, who is now representing Moldova.
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