They were born in the same year, in the same country, just six months apart. But the Olympic fortunes of British-raised taekwondo stars Lutalo Muhammad and Aaron Cook could scarcely be more different.
When they arrived at Rio’s Carioca 3 arena on Friday morning they were no longer even fighting on the same side, Cook having defected to Moldova in an almighty huff. By the time they went back to the athletes’ village at the end of the night, one of them was silver medallist, the other had to settle for 11th place.
It was a result which finally laid to rest which of the two 25-year-olds deserved a place on Team GB in the -80kg class, after an unedifying selection battle stretching back five years.
Muhammad, the Walthamstow warrior, won a silver for Britain in an agonising final in which he came within one second of beating Cheick Sallah Junior Cisse of the Ivory Coast. The African champion triumphed with the final kick of the match, making contact with the Briton’s head to take four points, winning 6-8.
It was Britain’s second taekwondo medal of the Games, after Jade Jones retained her Olympic title on Thursday night, taking gold. Afterwards, Muhammad sobbed into his father’s arms. He was absolutely devastated, he told the BBC: “This is the lowest moment of my life.”
He probably wasn’t quite as devastated as Dorset-born Cook, however, who crashed out in the first round, never having to demonstrate whether he knew the words to the Moldovan national anthem. He lost 14-2 to Wei-Ting Liu of Chinese Taipei and will go back home (to Dorchester or Chișinău?) wondering whether it was worth picking such an epic – and expensive – fight with GB Taekwondo in his bid to be picked for the British Olympic squad.
It remains to be seen whether Cook will now, finally, be able to forgive the national federation for overlooking him for London 2012 when he was world number one, choosing instead Muhammad, who went on to win bronze in the -80kg category four years ago. He will ask himself, no doubt, if it was worth defecting to Moldova, of all places, when they offered him a passport and a place in their Olympic team.
In the run-up to Rio, Muhammad was candid about his relationship with his newly Moldovan nemesis, which he described as “probably the biggest rivalry in taekwondo”, stressing: “We are not friends.”
After losing his match, Cook was disconsolate. “I am devastated,” he said. “To have the opportunity to be here is amazing obviously (after) what happened with London when I didn’t have a chance to compete. I’m so grateful that Moldova have done that for me and I feel I let everyone down today. It happened for me on the worst day it could.”
To add to Cook’s humiliation, Muhammad breezed through his own first round matches. First he beat Australia’s Hayder Skara 14-0, then he made light work of triple Olympic medallist Steven Lopez (USA), winning 2-9.
In the semi finals he beat Milad Beigi Harchegani, who was fighting for Azerbaijan, despite being from Iran. That 12-7 victory put him through to the late night final, guaranteeing a medal upgrade from 2012. He ended up with a different colour metal than the one he was hoping for, but vowed to triumph in Tokyo 2020. “First bronze, then silver. You know what comes next,” he said.
Following the selection controversy of 2012, Cook has refused to represent the country of his birth. He complained that he had received “no funding or support from the GB system” since 2011, despite coming fifth at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 when he was just 17. For a few years he fought for the Isle of Man, but was always scouting around for other, more lucrative options, claiming to have spent £100,000 challenging his London shunning.
A saviour arrived, in the shape of the Moldovan billionaire Igor Iuzefovici, who promised to to fund the young athlete. In April 2015, after weeks of speculation, Cook received his passport from the small eastern European state, prompting a flurry of “They think it’s Moldova. It is now” headlines.
The nationality switch was reluctantly accepted by the British Olympic Association (BOA). Bill Sweeney, the BOA’s chief executive, said taekwando’s governing body had tried to persuade Cook to change his mind but in the end could do little other than respect the athlete’s wishes.
Cook’s first year as a Moldovan athlete was so successful that he was named Moldovan Sportsman of the Year 2015. Last year came third in the world championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia, in the 74-80kg category, and second at a world cup event in Mexico City.
Moldova has so far won one medal in Rio, a bronze in the men’s canoeing. After 263 of 306 events, Team GB have won 60, including 24 golds.
This article was written by Helen Pidd in the Carioca 3 arena, Rio de Janeiro, for theguardian.com on Saturday 20th August 2016 03.46 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010