By no means of exaggeration, I personally thought that although all Malaysian hearts were cruelly shattered when the final shot of Dato’ Lee Chong Wei sailed long of the backline on the 5th of August 2012, the 1Malaysia concept was beautifully portrayed via the 29 year old Penangite without an utter of a word from him.
I myself started watching badminton from way back in 2001, when I started badminton training during primary school. Back then, all eyes of my teammates and I were on Wong Choong Hann (remember him?), who put Malaysian men’s singles back on the international scene by soaring up as high as world number 1 and fought against the likes of Taufik Hidayat and Xia Xuanze (who were both at their prime during then). He was my idol back then, and I was devasted when he lost in the World Championships final to Xia Xuanze in 2003. Nevertheless it was a huge feat for a Malaysian to finish a strong runner-up position in a competition whereby the stake’s high, near parallel to the likes of All England and Olympics. After that fateful defeat, Choong Han’s form dipped, and he dropped down the world rankings. I thought to myself that that’s the last time we’ll see such a competent men’s singles player from Malaysia, and such a feat of nearly being world champion will never be realised again.
Then Lee Chong Wei, as quiet and modest as he was and still is, came into the hearts of all Malaysian badminton fans.
Born October 21, 1982 in Bangai Serai, Perak, Chong Wei shows himself as a rather small figure and shy nature as compared to the taller, more powerful frame of the other international players. As much as I’d not want to admit it, I initially thought Chong Wei was just another case of merely a flash in the pan. My perception towards Malaysian badminton of the modern era has always been that something which shows alot of promise initially, will never bear fruit in the future. Remember Hafiz Hashim? When he won the coveted All England Open (the most historical competition in world badminton, similar to what Wimbledon is to tennis), I thought he was going to take over Wong Choong Hann as Malaysia’s biggest hope in men’s singles badminton. He then spiralled down the rankings, the drop in form alarming, and never threatened to win another major title ever again. The exact same “false anticipation” was what Chong Wei gave me initially, but then when he started winning the Malaysian Open regularly and even managed to qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, I started to realize that this shy and petite little fella is actually one hell of a good player.
From then on I started watching Chong Wei’s matches regularly, be it in Super Series finals or the major tournaments. One of his traits which I believe all Malaysians would firmly agree with me is his strong discipline and steady concentration. Even when he started winning titles and got to world ranking of number 1, never did he let such successes derail his performance and form on the court. No offense but unlike the doubles pairing of Koo Kien Kiat and Tan Boon Heong, the pair’s immediate success especially in the year of 2006 seemed to get to the head of Kien Kiat especially, and although since their successful partnership they’ve gotten as high as world number 1 as well, never have they delivered as consistently as Chong Wei did on the international stage.
Then came 2008, at only his SECOND Olympics Games appearance, Chong Wei took on the weight of all Malaysian hopes, beating Lee Hyun Il of South Korea in the semifinal to reach the finals of the men’s singles competition in Beijing, whereby he faced the all so familiar name of Lin Dan from China. Upon beating the South Korean, the media spotlight was firmly on Chong Wei even before the final match started. His coach Misbun Sidek back then said Chong Wei had a 50-50 chance of beating Lin Dan, but let’s face it. Chong Wei was already soundly beaten even before he stepped onto the court on that fateful night. From his facial expression, no words can describe the amount of pressure and nerves he must have been feeling back then, at the tender age of 25 with a nation hoping for him to deliver Malaysia’s FIRST EVER Olympic GOLD medal. Take nothing away from Lin Dan though, he was playing, in my opinion, the best men’s singles performance I’ve ever witnessed. On home soil, the support he was receiving seemed to fuel him onto an insane level of badminton play, whilst Chong Wei never even got close to his own potential. Chong Wei got thoroughly toyed and destroyed on the Beijing court, literally.
Some people starting condemning Chong Wei’s performance, but those were words coming out from people who do not understand badminton or any professional sport. It is extremely easy for us Malaysians to say “oh the ball is wide, don’t retrieve it!” or “aiyahhh why play it into the net, give the opponent free points lar!”. When one is on the court playing an Olympic Games Final for a Gold medal, nerve is bound to set in. Against an opponent like Lin Dan, one tends to try play the PERFECT netshot, the PERFECT smash, the PERFECT placement shot. That was what Chong Wei had to do in order to have any realistically minute chance of beating Lin Dan in that 2008 final. Yes he failed, even apologized to the nation, feeling he let everyone down. I personally, salute him for what he had put up in that short 20-30 minutes final. It was a mentally draining and pounding experience for him, no doubt.
Chong Wei came back a stronger person and a stronger player after that, hanging onto the world number 1 spot for more than a century of weeks. He was winning Super Series titles like it was a formality, but again often losing out to Lin Dan in major finals. Lee Chong Wei vs Lin Dan, for the past five years this has been THE rivalry of international badminton in any discipline, be it men’s singles or men’s doubles etc. No rivalry and consistency from any other players could match these two megastars, and more often than not it seemed that Lin Dan was the one coming out on top.
On their days, in my opinion both Chong Wei and Lin Dan are very closely matched, be it their skillset or court craft. Thus it all comes down to their respective mental toughness, and here is where I do believe Chong Wei is clearly losing out on. In sports, mental toughness plays as huge of a role, if not more, than physical performance. However, people should know that Lin Dan goes through rigorous military type training back in China, and that tends to leave him in good stead when it comes to close situations during matches. No fault should be laid onto Chong Wei therefore, as it is not easy, not easy at all.
During the Thomas Cup in May 2012, just two months ago, when Chong Wei rolled over his ankle to suffer that serious injury during his match against Peter Gade of Denmark, all Malaysians must have thought that the dream of securing that elusive Olympic Gold medal was all but over. The pain was protrayed on his face, and the tears that rolled down when he was on the wheelchair, was a heartbreaking moment for all Malaysians. But Chong Wei was not one to give in, with the aid of stem cell treatment, incredible mental determination to keep his and the nation’s dreams alive, and the heart of a true professional, he battled back through rehabilitation to miraculously take part in the 2012 London Olympic Games, with only TWO WEEKS of proper badminton training under his belt.
His battles to get to the final was breathtaking, knowing that he was nowhere near full match fitness. When he beat Chen Long of China in the semifinals with such a comprehensive scoreline, the hopes of a gold medal for Malaysia were doubled as compared to those during 2008. Such good of a form Chong Wei was in, that it amazingly prompted China’s Head Coach Li Yongbo to get down courtside along with Lin Dan’s coach Xia Xuanze, to give the chinese player advice and encouragement during the match.
I jumped off my sofa screaming in utmost delight when Chong Wei secured the first set 21-15. But as everyone by now must have known, the end was a heartbreaking one, especially when Chong Wei was leading 19-18 in the decider, just TWO points away from glory. Mental frailty again coming into play for him? I do not think so this time, it was just that Lin Dan played better during the final few points. A great final, a great match as a badminton spectacle, and a fitting match to witness the final Olympic appearances for these two great athletes.
One thing which is for sure though, when the ESPN commentator mentioned that “Skill win you medals, but attitude win hearts”, it was a very simple yet significant statement that differentiates these two athletes. Upon winning the gold, Lin Dan understandably ran across almost the whole arena to celebrate, while leaving Chong Wei still down on his court ground, devastated. Do not get me wrong, of course emotions must be running very high for Lin Dan for him to celebrate as such, but in my opinion it was still inappropriate. In any sports, badminton in this case, for Lin Dan to win, for Lin Dan to get the gold medal in such a thrilling final, there must be an opponent at the other side of the net. The final would never have taken place without Chong Wei, and I personally thought that Lin Dan should have (of course celebrated first) shaken Chong Wei’s hands earlier, acknowledging him for what they have both achieved in Wembley Arena that night.
Now that the dust has settled, Lin Dan, who is also Chong Wei’s close friend, posted on his Weibo account in China, whereby he graciously congratulated Chong Wei as well for such a great match, a great rivalry all these years and a great friendship. Lin Dan, for his rather arrogant style in Malaysian eyes, has definitely grown up alot since 2008, and I hope Malaysians would be gracious in defeat as well. Lin Dan might have won the gold, Chong Wei the silver, but badminton won the night of 5th August 2012.
With Chong Wei arriving back in KL soon, which is on the 7th I believe, Malaysians ought to give him a hero’s welcome, one larger than the one in 2008. The interview with Chong Wei after the match revealed a remarkable feat, as Chong Wei played through all 5 matches with his ankle still slightly swollen, tapped firmly for support and the intake of painkillers prior to every match. To manage putting up such a wonderful fight and still incredibly feeling responsible enough (he has no obligation to feel responsible, not even the slightest) to say “I’m sorry” on his twitter account, I have no vocabulary whatsoever to phrase up anything to salute him as a person.
Chong Wei has achieved more than anything we could ask of him. We Malaysians too shed tears of sadness, not because he has failed to deliver the gold medal, but as we’ve all witnessed our hero shedding tears of devastation of his own. We are all so proud of him.
I hereby express my utmost gratitude, salutations and appreciation to Dato’ Lee Chong Wei, the 2012 London Olympic Games Silver Medalist, a winner in Malaysian hearts, and a great ambassador to the wonderful sport of Badminton.