Eventually, the Olympic gold medal proved to be as elusive for Lee Chong Wei as the mythical chimera. Having disposed in the semi-final of the man who has been his most dangerous rival over the years, the Malaysian would have been forgiven for thinking that he finally had the yellow metal in his sights.
Unfortunately for Lee, Lin Dan’s fellow-countryman stood implacably in his path to the gold, like the insurmountable Great Wall of China. Chen Long, seeded one spot behind the top-ranked Lee, dragged the eagle (as he is widely known) down to earth with a 74-minute, straight-sets 21-18, 21-18 victory, that enabled him to improve upon the bronze medal that he had bagged in the 2012 London Olympics.
The tall, strongly built 27-year-old Chen added the 2016 Olympic gold to his previous two gold medals, that he had bagged in the 2014 and 2015 World Championships, the latter again at the expense of the 33-year-old Lee. It left the Penang native with a hat-trick of Olympic silver medals, to match the traces of the same colour in his tightly clipped grizzled locks, just above his ears and temple.
Their career head-to-head comparison had shown that there was really nothing to choose between the two. Lee had a narrow 13-12 lead in the 25 encounters they had played before the 2016 Olympic final. On their form leading into the Games, Lee was flying high, having bagged titles in all the four Super Series finals he had played in 2016, while Chen had ended runner-up in the three finals he had reached.
In hindsight, it becomes clear that Lee was at his best in the first half of the first game, when he went into the lemon break with a handy 11-7 lead. Neither he nor Chen held any terrors for the other’s smashes, and both defended comfortably, to end up playing all-court rallies of attrition, the longest of which was 52 strokes. But the match was won and lost at the net, where Chen played with control and precision, whereas Lee fumbled repeatedly in an effort to keep the dribbles tight.
Though Lee stayed ahead until 13-9, Chen appeared slightly the faster of the two on his feet, using his prodigious height and reach to bring the shuttle down at a steeper angle than most players, who use the wristy half-smash to create openings for the full-blooded follow-up hit. He caught up with Lee at 13-all and the two then went neck-and-neck until 17-all. Excellent net play allowed the Chinese player to bag the opening game at 21-18, even as Lee netted crucial shots.
As the match progressed into the second stanza, it became clear that Old Father Time was frowning on the Malaysian (he conceded nearly seven years in age to Chen), and that his foot speed and reflexes had slowed down just that little bit. It could also be seen that he was unable to charge himself up emotionally in the manner he had done against Lin Dan the previous day, and that he did not attack enough.
Once again, an 8-5 Lee lead was neutralised by the Chinese player, who surged to 11-8 with a six-point reel. Thereafter, Chen was always ahead by a couple of points, and simply piled on the pressure as he sensed that Lee’s reserves were dwindling. At 20-16 to Chen, Lee was on the precipice, but like a true champion, he fought tigerishly and snatched back two match-points before surrendering to the inevitable.
In the initial minutes of the pandemonium following the end of the match, it was heart-warming to see former world doubles champion and Chinese head coach Li Yongbo going over to Lee, and hugging him, consoling him over his heart-breaking loss. The victor, on the other hand, leaped all over the arena like an adrenaline junkie, and threw some of his rackets and his sweat-drenched T-shirt into the crowd, even pretending to loosen his shorts in preparation of stripping down altogether!
As for the Malaysian, contrary to the previous day, when he had roared in exultation and been wreathed in a combination of tears and smiles, he merely sported a rueful grin and a resigned expression on his craggy face. It was clear that his decade-long quest for Olympic gold had finally ended, and that he would not be back in Tokyo, four years hence.
Earlier, in the play-off for the bronze medal, Denmark’s vastly talented Viktor Axelsen staged a fine rearguard reaction to quell the challenge of deposed Olympic champion Lin Dan at 15-21, 21-10, 21-17 in a tussle that coincidentally lasted exactly the same length of time as the final. Sadly, this particular 74-minute encounter failed to scale the heights.
The result made the rangy Dane only the third non-Asian men’s singles player to win a medal at an Olympiad; and underscored the fact that his sterling contribution in Denmark’s Thomas Cup victory earlier this year has been no flash in the pan. The result also marked the first time in the last three Olympics that the Chinese ace, a five-time former world champion, was leaving the Games empty-handed.
The fact that Axelsen had beaten Lin twice in their previous four meetings revealed that he was quite capable of winning against the Chinese legend. At the same time, there was no doubting Super Dan’s propensity for bringing out his best in the tournaments that mattered – and nothing mattered more than the Olympics, the world’s biggest stage.
Unfortunately, although he played well enough in patches, the two-time Olympic gold medallist was unable to pull out that little extra from the deepest recesses of his reserves, as he has done time and again in the past. He appeared to be repeatedly rousing himself out of a pall of lassitude or from a distant reverie, to reveal brief flashes of his genius. But one could tell his heart was not in it. His demeanour reeked of “gold or nothing”.
It would be remiss of this writer to pen a peroration of the badminton coverage of the 2016 Rio Olympics without making reference to a letter purportedly written by Lin Dan to Lee Chong Wei on Friday evening. It was delivered to the Malaysian a few hours after their epic semi-final clash had ended in a three-game victory for the perennial handmaiden Lee by the proverbial rat’s whisker, at 22-20 in the decider; and the two arch-rivals had embraced and exchanged sweat-soaked T-shirts.
A somewhat stilted English translation of the Chinese text was made available to badminton lovers; and it is reproduced below, verbatim. It showed that, in addition to a great talent, a strong mind and the two gold medals he won in the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics, Lin Dan had a heart made of the same metal that is proverbially seen to indicate the highest level of goodness.
“The 37th time I faced you across from the net, we have come full circle from the first time we met,” the man generally acknowledged as the greatest badminton player of all time wrote. “To be honest, the moment when I lost to you, I had no regrets. You are my greatest opponent, and I was willing to lose to you with no regrets. When I hugged you, I truly felt that the ten years with you have been like a dream,"
“I will keep your jersey and tell my future children about you. I would tell them that there is someone named Lee Chong Wei – my greatest opponent, and my greatest friend.”
Now, isn’t that what sport is all about?