By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - With 100 days to go until the Tokyo Olympics, British taekwondo athlete Lutalo Muhammad is determined to make every second count.
That has become his mantra since the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games when he had gold in his grasp only to lose it after taking a devastating kick to the head in the final second while leading.
As Cheick Sallah Cisse sprinted off the mat in joyous celebration at Ivory Coast's first ever gold, a stunned and disbelieving Muhammad was left sobbing in the arms of his father.
The 29-year-old Briton, who has moved up a weight division from his previous -80kg but whose ticket to Tokyo has yet to be confirmed, will not be making that mistake again.
"The lesson of every second counts is something that I definitely apply to my personal life and my training life," the 2016 silver and 2012 bronze medallist told Reuters.
"The table was ready and set for me to go become Olympic champion and in the last second it was snatched away.
"Even one second can make all the difference. Every rep in the gym counts, every kick counts when I’m kicking the pad, every punch counts, every lift counts, every extra bit of nutrition counts... that’s the lesson I really learned then.
"Every second counts so remembering how marginal the gains and losses are, I think has made me a better man and a better athlete."
Muhammad, who is an ambassador for Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic sponsor Bridgestone, revisited the Rio drama in an advert for the Japanese tyre maker before the Games were postponed last year.
It features the fateful kick and the tearful, gut-wrenching post-match interview.
"I was just half a second away from being Olympic champion and accomplishing my dream," he gasped then. "I don't want to cry on TV but I'm so distraught."
Muhammad sees the advert as motivational fuel, particularly during the recent COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown when his immediate goals were thrown out of the window and uncertainty took over.
Recovering from an injury that ruled him out of this month's European championships in Bulgaria, the Briton said he felt fitter, faster and stronger and intended to go on until at least Paris 2024.
Britain's most successful male taekwondo athlete, who in 2012 was controversially given the nod for the London Games ahead of world number one Aaron Cook, was relaxed about the selection process.
A decision is expected in May, with Ivory Coast-born Mahama Cho his rival for the place.
"I think my history speaks for itself. European titles are something I’ve already won so it’s about being ready for the Olympics," said Muhammad.
He is aware of the irony that silver made him more famous than gold would have done but is now keen to complete the collection.
"It’s very difficult for me as a professional athlete, as a winner, to say that the silver was better than the gold. If I could go back in time and correct it, I absolutely would," he said.
"Yes, I think it's true I have become more known but also it’s made me a better athlete thanks to the hard lesson I learned in 2016, that every second counts."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Christian Radnedge)