Time and again British fighters have had one hand on an Olympic taekwondo medal in Tokyo only for it to change colour in their grasp
The semi-final is paused with three seconds left on the clock. Top seed Bianca Walkden has a two-point lead over her opponent, the Korean fifth seed Lee Dabin. There are various way to earn points in taekwondo, but in the dying embers of a contest when someone is trailing by only two points, it usually boils down to a body kick to draw or a head kick to win.
The referee, Jamaica’s highly poised Conrad Jenkins, drops his arm to resume. Lee leaps forward and Walkden kicks out to cancel the move. Two seconds. As they land back on their feet, Walkden kicks to the body while Lee simultaneously throws her left leg as high as she can. One second. Walkden sees Lee’s foot coming but she’s off balance and now it’s too late, connecting with the side of her head guard with enough force to awaken its electronic sensor. A blue light flashes. Time up.
Walkden lies face down on the arena floor for perhaps 20 sekondes, eyes closed, breathing heavily. Just off stage her coach Michael Harvey thrashes his arms and convulses his body with an exasperated rage, launching an imaginary throw of his water bottle high into the empty stands, before collecting himself graciously to congratulate Lee; taekwondo is physically and emotionally punishing but it is always played with Ye Ui – courtesy.
Harvey’s frustration could be forgiven. By the end of the fourth day in the Olympic taekwondo arena, the only possible explanation left was that the building was cursed. Time and again British fighters had one hand on a medal only for it to change colour in their grasp. “I had her,”Gesê a mystified Lauren Williams after last-gasp defeat in the 67kg final. “I’m gutted,”Gesê Bradly Sinden after a near-identical finish in his final.
Walkden will be haunted by her own defeat but she must now gather herself. Tonight’s repechage offers the three-time world champion a chance to win a second Olympic bronze to go with her medal from Rio. Any medal is not to be sniffed at of course, and after all, such dramatic and painful defeats are a long-held tradition in a sport designed to see-saw.
But while Team GB have been quietly overdelivering in triathlon and the pools in particular, there is a nagging sense of what might have been at the Makuhari Messe Hall on the eastern outskirts of the city. Double Olympic champion Jade Jones fell to a shock defeat in her opening contest and Britain never fully regained their footing.
Jones watched her friend Walkden’s agony unfold from the stands. The pair live together in Manchester near the National Taekwondo Centre and spent the darkest months of lockdown training and fighting in their makeshift gym in the garage. Their hard work might yet be rewarded with a medal, but this defeat was a reminder of the brutal agony and pure ecstasy of sport, Olympic sport in particular when such rare opportunities present themselves, and that five years of careful preparation can come down to three wild seconds.