The heavyweight fighter started off as a football player in his native Mali, but without a strong national team, Keita figured he had a better chance of getting to the Olympics with taekwondo.
Returning to Mali in 2003 after playing professional football in Angola, Keita began to train seriously in the Korean martial art, having won several tournaments as a junior. Just four years later, he won his first world championship — the first African ever to do so.
“I cried,” the 31-year-old Keita said. “I didn’t think it was possible for a world taekwondo champion to come from Africa.
“But now my dream is to win at the Olympics.”
Last month, Keita was awarded a wildcard spot to compete at the London Games. He is currently ranked 42nd in the men’s over-80 kilogram division after taking some time off to recover from a knee injury. He was third at the African Olympic taekwondo qualifiers and won world championship titles in 2007 and 2009.
In Mali, Keita trained on the streets, with little equipment. During the 2007 world championships in Beijing, he was so strapped for cash he and his coach had to stay with friends. He practiced in a hotel courtyard.
Since 2006, Keita has been training mostly in the United States, thanks to the International Olympic Committee’s Solidarity program, which funds athletes from developing countries.
Keita’s main coach is Patrice Remarck, a former taekwondo champion from the Ivory Coast.
“I’m training hard right now, but I have to make sure I’m in good shape and good health for London,” Keita said, adding he sometimes goes a bit easy in sparring sessions to avoid injuries.
Remarck is currently in Britain training another taekwondo Olympic hopeful, but he phones or emails Keita to pass on his instructions.
Remarck described Keita as incredibly agile, especially for a heavyweight who weighs 105 kilograms (231 pounds) and stands 2.03 meters (6 feet, 8 inches) tall. He said he’s tweaked Keita’s style to make his kicks even more powerful and explosive.
“I can probably kick harder than all of the fighters that I train — except (Keita),” he said.
In Mali, Keita has become a national star since winning his world titles; taekwondo is now the country’s third most popular sport, after football and basketball. Keita has been invited to the Presidential Palace three times and also set up a foundation to help children pursue sports. All his siblings, including an older brother and two sisters, have tried taekwondo but none have done it seriously.
After Keita lost in the quarterfinals at the Beijing Olympics, Mali was in mourning. The country’s then-president, Amadou Toumani Toure, described the defeat as “a painful day for Mali” and “an immense disappointment.”
Keita says he was still “a bit of a novice” in Beijing and said he’s recently been focusing on being more aggressive and trying to quickly switch tactics to capitalize on his opponents’ weaknesses.
“He’s a very tactical fighter and does whatever he needs to win,” said Daniel Kobbina, a Ghana-born taekwondo fighter who runs a London martial arts academy. “Keita does things you wouldn’t expect from a big guy, like throwing a hook kick out of nowhere.”
He said Keita might surprise his competition at the upcoming Olympics, despite having been out of the competition circuit recently.
“He knows how to play the game and stays very level-headed during a fight,” Kobbina said.
Mali’s only taekwondo medal hope says he has a healthy respect for all of his rivals, though there is something about coming to Britain for the London Olympics that has him a bit spooked.
“I noticed they drive on the other side of the street there,” he said. “I’ve never seen that before and it makes me a little nervous.”
Source: Associated Press