Cisse vs Muhammad at Rio 2016: The two sides of a golden story
The phrase “one man’s loss is another man’s gain” could not be more apt than in the case of Cheick Sallah Cisse.
The 23-year-old Ivorian broke hearts across Great Britain when he snatched victory from Lutalo Muhammad in the last second of the men’s -80kg taekwondo Olympic final.
It was the Ivory Coast’s first Olympic gold and he has, since Rio, become a national hero.
He has been gifted a new house and a 50 million CFA franc (£65,400) cash bonus.
Lutalo Muhammad was visibly distraught after the final – “I was so close to becoming Olympic champion and making my dream”
Not bad for an athlete who only has access to poor facilities and finds it hard to raise funds to meet his training costs.
Cisse insists, however, his celebrity status won’t distract him from his taekwondo title defence in Tokyo in 2020.
“People look at me differently now, I’ve become a national symbol. I can’t walk in the street without being recognised, I’m a star,” he told AFP.
“People approach you, they congratulate you, it’s nice, touching, all this gives me strength to achieve even more.”
Cheick Sallah Cisse
Cisse was given a hero’s welcome on his arrival into Abidjan
Cisse, who stunned third seed Muhammad with a four-point score right at the death to win 8-6, was honoured by Ivorian president Alassane Ouattara on his return home.
He took the opportunity to ask for an improvement in conditions and coaching for athletes.
“We were supported. The Government did what it could. But we need new laws passed so that athletes can live off their sports,” pleaded Cisse.
His request was heard and Ouattara promised to examine what could be done.
Cisse meets Ivorian president Alassane Ouattara
Cisse and the Ivorian Olympic team were invited to the Presidential palace upon their return, where they met Alassane Ouattara
“We have talented boys and girls in taekwondo. We have to help them,” insisted Cisse.
“I want to tell my little brothers to believe in their dreams. I’ve gone from nothing to become someone, without any help.
The other side of the story: Lutalo Muhammad
In an Olympic Games packed full of emotion perhaps the defining tear-jerking moment was the sight of a distraught Lutalo Muhammad sobbing and apologising to his nation after missing out on a gold medal in heartbreaking circumstances.
The taekwondo silver medallist was leading with one second to go in Rio when his opponent Cheick Sallah landed a kick to the head, robbing him of the title.
A stunned Muhammad described it as “the worst moment” of his life at the time but insists the public have really picked him up.
“The last few weeks have been amazing,” he said. “To lose an Olympic gold medal like that was devastating but to receive this support is just wonderful.
“People have been coming up to me in the street, hugging me. I almost got run over the other day when someone ran over to say hello.
“I stand by what I said – it was the worst moment of my life, losing an Olympic gold medal in the last second – but I’m still very proud of what I achieved.”
Although not competing, Muhammad and his “best selfie face” will be cheering on compatriots in the British National Championships tomorrow.
More than 800 competitors of all ages and abilities are expected to compete at the Copper Box Arena in London on Saturday and Sunday, while lucky spectators may get the chance to meet Muhammad.
The 25-year-old is now the most successful British male athlete in taekwondo history, having won a bronze medal in his 80kg class in London four years ago.
He was first introduced to the sport by dad Wayne, a martial arts coach, and has been hooked ever since. “When I was nine I remember him showing me taekwondo on the TV at the Olympics and he said ‘That could be you one day’.
“Before that final I was thinking back to first seeing it on the TV and it really is an amazing feeling to have reached a point you’ve dreamed about your whole life.
“The only sad thing is I’ve got to wait another four years before the next one, but I’m going to make sure bring back that gold medal.
“Time is on my side though, I’ll still got lots of juice left for Tokyo and maybe even for 2024 as well – they should call me the juice man because I’ve got plenty.”
Passionate about his sport, the two-time British champion has launched a scathing attack on Olympic bosses, calling on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to allow bigger taekwondo teams.
Currently only two athletes from each country are allowed to compete across four different weight categories, but Muhammad insists every category should have at least one entrant.
“We won a gold, silver and a bronze [in Rio],” he added. “The boxers won the same with a squad of 14, we did it with four.
“Taekwondo can be one of the most successful sport for Great Britain – we could be right up there with the likes of cycling and rowing.
“We’ve got world-class athletes but we need to have more opportunities for them to grow our sport.
“Taekwondo became an Olympic sport in 2000 and we’re still only able to send four people – it’s not fair, it’s not right and it needs changing for Tokyo.”