Like many great practitioners of martial arts, Mahama Cho’s ability to fight grew out of a need to defend himself. The 28-year-old, who competes for Team GB in taekwondo, was born in Ivory Coast, but moved to London at age eight after a difficult early childhood.
Mahama was raised by his grandmother because his father lived in the UK and his mother was ‘not in the state of mind’ to look after him. In an interview with BBC, Mahama described those early years, when it was just his grandmother and him, as being defined by struggle.
‘We make the most of the resources we have, but Africa is a tough area to grow up in.’ Cho, who is a practising Muslim, went to an Arabic school in the coastal city of Abidjan, where things were particularly difficult.
‘I used to get bullied a lot, I was challenged every day after school simply because I was strong, and I’d come home with bruises.’
It all became too much for his grandmother, who demanded that his father, Zakaia, allow Mahama to live with him in England. Zakaia, a former taekwondo champion, was teaching the sport in London, and agreed to let his son come live with him.
Mahama, thanks to his stature, had drawn the wrong sort of attention as a kid in Ivory Coast. After arriving in London, at only 8 years old, he now faced a whole new set of challenges.
‘I remember getting on the plane and just staring at my dad thinking “wow, I’m going to be living with him”. To arrive and be hit by the cold air, which we just don’t have in Africa, was amazing.’
Mahama settled with his dad in Stockwell, south London. Along with not being able to speak English, Mahama was subjected to racial abuse, but he found comfort in the new friendship he formed with his stepbrother, David.
‘We were soul-mates but people wouldn’t accept it because he [David] was white and I was black and they would call us names….People used to try and choke him and put him to sleep and even though he was older, I was stronger so I would run in and protect him all of the time.’
His father, who had originally been reluctant to teach Mahama taekwondo, soon saw that he would need it to not only defend himself. Zakaia began to coach him.
‘I was trying my best to stay on the straight and narrow and be a role model but I’d just get dragged into fights – it wasn’t ideal,’ Mahama told BBC.
‘I think taekwondo probably saved me more than anything else; the discipline put me on the straight path.’
Mahama pins some of his success on the difficulties he faced growing up: ‘I utilise the pain and hardship I’ve experienced since childhood as motivation every day.’ However, he also believes his Muslim faith has provided him with a strength and contentment he wouldn’t otherwise have.
‘Religion is a big thing for me, it’s the one thing other than taekwondo which has probably made me survive because of the strength it gives me….It [Islam] is not about the hatred and the fights that you see, it’s more about caring for one another and sharing your peace and I want to bring peace in the eyes of children.’
As a teen, Mahama was a promising footballer who had trials with a number of professional clubs. Amazingly, it was his compatriot and fellow Muslim, former Arsenal player Kolo Toure, who would remind him to stay humble: ‘He used to give me advice – to be humble, not to let becoming famous make you big-headed, and that I should always listen to my parents.’
Despite his footballing career, Mahama was invited to train with the British Taekwondo squad. He now had to make a choice. Thanks to his preference for one-on-one competition, he chose fighting over football. Along the way, he’s faced setbacks with injury and indecision on who to compete for (he represented France in his younger years).
Now fully committed to Team GB, Mahama has won three World Taekwondo Grand Prix medals and he narrowly missed a podium spot in the +80kg category and the 2016 Olympics.
Even so, it marked an incredible journey from fighting off schoolyard bullies in Ivory Coast to competing on the biggest stage at the Olympics in Rio. Mahama Cho proves that with self-belief, dedication and faith, there are few obstacles you can’t overcome.