Team GB’s leading taekwondo stars urge next generation to embrace the challenge of martial arts

The wall-to-wall coverage of the Olympics has stopped and conversations around ‘the legacy of the Games’ have faded away.

But for budding Olympic athletes, it is time for the hard work to start again, with a view to future events and, ultimately, Paris 2024.

After fans watch niche sports once every four years, they tend to be forgotten about. But now is the time for the public to get to their local parks and gyms to try something different after being inspired by the heroes of Tokyo.

Bianca Walkden has urged kids to try something new and take up taekwondo

That’s more the case for the less traditional sports and Olympic taekwondo medallist Bianca Walkden today urges kids to take inspiration from the Games to ‘go and try something new’.

Liverpool-born Walkden, 29, stumbled upon the sport by chance as a youngster and has now won bronze medals at back-to-back Games to go with three World Championship golds.

‘I just went with my friend one day, I was 11. I didn’t know what it was, I couldn’t spell it, I didn’t know it was in the Olympics,’ she tells Sportsmail.

‘I remember walking in the gym and everyone had these white things on and I thought, “What the hell are they doing?!”.

‘But they were all kicking each other in the head and screaming — I thought it was something I wanted to try!’

Walkden won a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics in the heavyweight weight class

Walkden won a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics in the heavyweight weight class

Since that day, Walkden has never looked back. At Tokyo, she suffered an agonising last-gasp defeat to South Korea’s Lee Da-bin in the +67kg semi-final but then won the bronze medal fight.

It has taken years of blood, sweat and tears to get to her supreme level but the biggest step forward she took was the very first one.

‘I was terrible back then, I shouldn’t have been picked! I had one good kick but a lot of heart so that got me there,’ she says.

‘But I’m still here today as World No 1, I must have done something right. I just took a leap of faith and it worked out.’

And after the glory of the Games, she hopes kids will take that first step of trying something new and hopefully falling in love with a new hobby.

‘The biggest thing for me is to get kids to do something they love,’ she says. ‘Otherwise, what gets you up in the morning for training?

‘Looking back, if I had one bit of advice for my younger self or kids coming through, I’d say first of all love what you do and trust yourself.

‘The biggest thing is to believe in yourself — mentally and physically. When you’re younger, you always care what people think — forget that! Just believe in yourself and chase your dream.’

Fellow taekwondo medallist Lutalo Muhammad agrees. The 30-year-old missed the Tokyo Games through injury — though he starred in a punditry role for the BBC.

‘For a young person, I would say, “Find a club, a coach who believes in you and supports you to chase your dream no matter what”,’ Muhammad, who won silver at Rio and bronze in London, tells Sportsmail.

‘There are many people in this country who can’t go as far as they should because they don’t have the right people around them. So get yourself a club, surrounded by healthy, like-minded people who want to go places. That’s organic and infectious, allow yourself to dream.’

So, what is it about taekwondo that is inspiring so many?

Lutalo Muhammad insisted there are huge positives to studying martial arts

Lutalo Muhammad insisted there are huge positives to studying martial arts

‘Not everyone is going to go to the Olympics but everyone can make themselves a better person by studying the martial arts and surrounding themselves with positive people,’ adds Muhammad.

Walkden echoes that sentiment, saying the unexpected nature of fights adds to the excitement.

‘The rules are hard to follow in taekwondo but at the end of the day, it’s just trying to get more points than your opponent. You have to fight until the last second — I know that more than most — and that makes it so exciting. The unknown is so special — that’s the magic of sport — and everyone is so different in taekwondo, everyone has different kicks and tactics.

‘The diversity and creativity you can get from being a taekwondo fighter, and the respect and discipline you learn along the way, sets taekwondo apart.’

After Tokyo, more people have interacted and engaged with the sport. Now Muhammad urges the younger generation to make a name for themselves — even in a ‘niche’ sport like taekwondo.

‘This is the “Covid Games” but I think it should be classified as the “niche-sport Games”,’ he says. ‘Mainstream sports try to find their superstars. With the most respect, the man who won the 100m was not a household name. So organically the focus was on the smaller sports.

‘Some of the biggest medals for GB were from those sports. Maybe the minority is becoming the norm. You don’t have to be a running athlete or swimmer, you can still make a name for yourself. Just get out there and try something new.’