WASHINGTON DC: It is often said in the world of sports: “No one remembers who came in second.”
Rarely do athletes retire as one of the G.O.A.T (Greatest Of All Time) in their sport without winning the greatest accolades in the sport or, to famously come in second.
Four Olympic Games and 10 World Championships later, with neither an Olympic nor a World champion title to Lee Chong Wei’s name in a career of nearly two decades, it is odd to begin a piece on a huge sporting icon recounting what he did not achieve.
Yet it is what makes Lee’s stature in badminton so immensely profound as news broke of his retirement. This despite his silver streak, or even as his career was tainted by a questionable doping scandal in 2014.
Lee is in the end both a legend and a myth.
Bittersweet is how I would describe his illustrious career in one word.
In 2008, he was awarded “Datukship”, an honorary title in Malaysia equivalent to the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in Britain, cementing his number one sportsman status in the country.
In 2011, he would release his autobiography and by 2018, his biopic film was made.
No other badminton player or sportsman in Malaysia had as much off-court colour.
It would be inaccurate to say Lee put Malaysia on the world map. He did not.
Nicol David (squash), Azizul Awang (cycling), Pandelela Rinong (diving) to name a few all excelled and shared in the same sporting generation and stage as Lee.
Though not as cult-like as neighbouring Indonesia, but badminton in Malaysia is very dear - and often synonymous with nationalism - to its population of 31 million.
From the 1992 Malaysian Thomas Cup team victory to the Sidek brothers winning the nation’s maiden Olympic medal at Barcelona 1992, the 1990s marked a “golden age” of Malaysian badminton as celebrity status was bequeathed upon their players.
Perhaps it was growing up under that backdrop, but there was a perennial “diva” aura on Lee (even as he does not hold a Thomas Cup title to his name, too).
Or perhaps, it was the projection to and by a sports media landscape in Malaysia that possess a ferocious appetite for chasing badminton news, at all cost.
WAITING FOR HIS FAIRYTALE ENDING
Lee’s generation of Malaysian badminton players was caught in between a momentous shift of the commercialisation of the sport and the digitisation of media.
The result of which saw Lee as the ‘dai lo’ to his generation who learned to be far less affable than their predecessors and far more guarded than their successors.
In my early days as Press Officer for the sport’s international governing body, I was utterly unprepared for the media mob and the many cat-and-mouse chases needed to locate Lee in an attempt to get him to attend his post-match press conferences after a bitter loss.
It is not quite about a man who cannot take losses than it was a reflection of a career trajectory marked with a melodramatic persistence. Like that prince waiting for his fairytale ending, which (mostly) never came.
Even as his story was one of rags-to-riches; and there was also the other romantic beat of his equally persistent childhood sweetheart – fellow Malaysian badminton star Wong Mew Choo – who quietly held out for him in their on-and-off relationship.
By the time Lee beat nasal cancer in 2018, it felt like it brought a completion to all the elements needed for a true Korean drama.
A UNIFYING MALAYSIAN ICON
It also cannot be understated that Lee is above all a cultural icon at a time his country is deeply divided along political and racial lines, and fighting corruption too.
From navigating an aggressive bookie culture to a world where athletes are used as political pawns, perhaps the biggest missed opportunity for Lee was to not have actively spoken up against these plagues in the sporting world around him.
For the most part, Lee is not a man of many words. Instead, he did grow to become a master tactician in manoeuvring the political codes in Malaysian sports.
Put a mike in front of him, turn the camera on, he gives interviews in English, in his mother tongue Mandarin, and can switch to Bahasa Melayu as required.
That said, as an ethnic Chinese minority in Malaysia, Lee did share a real and raw bond with long-time coach and mentor Misbun Sidek. It was a sight to behold.
It was also said, the most united hour of Malaysia is seen in the packed coffee shops or Mamak stalls during an Olympic or World Championship final Lee was in.
THE LEE CHONG WEI-LIN DAN ROYAL BATTLES
And still, badminton has come a long way in developing itself into a global sport.
In 2012, when I was commissioned to write a piece on Peter Gade’s retirement for a China magazine, it was an equally profound moment for the badminton community as Gade was the sport’s first truly global icon.
Gade left the sport in a better place than when he had found it. 2012 was a defining turning point where that mantle was passed on.
Of the most epic rivalries in sports, from European football derbies to Federer-Nadal in tennis, badminton finally found a legitimate catalyst to propel its global ambitions in the rivalry between Lee Chong Wei and the G.O.A.T of the G.O.A.Ts, Lin Dan.
Lee is known for his nimble footwork and artistry, while Lin Dan for his explosive play and style. The “Lin-Lee battle”, as the media oft romanticised, was a true feast for the senses and reached a climax at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Earlier at their Beijing 2008 Olympic Games final encounter, Lin washed Lee in two quick games. Yet that marked the beginning of the duo’s coming-of-age.
Lee was ranked World No. 1 for 199 consecutive weeks between 2008 and 2012, a tremendous achievement in the modern day badminton men’s singles event.
By the 2011 World Championships, both athletes were hitting their prime and in a class above the rest of the men’s singles players.
Lee had defeated Lin for the coveted All-England Championships title earlier that year, but went down to Lin in a bitter 21-23 tiebreaker loss in the World’s final.
When their battle dutifully repeated itself a year later at the Olympic Games final, it was to become the most watched Olympic badminton final of all-time.
I don’t think I will ever forget witnessing that match from the Federation’s media viewing stand with my nervous system going out of control. Nor will I ever forget the epic scene when the shuttle hit the ground at the final point.
In a moment of contrast, ecstasy and devastation had co-existed so profoundly in the same space, in a way, some would consider it to be absolutely cruel.
The moment their tiebreaker game concluded 19-21 to Lin Dan, he fled out of the court circling the arena with his arms spread out wide like an eagle, in pure joy.
On the other end of the arena, visibly inconsolable, Lee sat on court entirely distraught as his two coaches came over to comfort him, and then helped him up.
A year later, the pair met again at the 2013 World Championships final. Citing injury, Chong Wei dramatically and controversially opted not to finish the tiebreaker as Lin Dan held match point 20-17. Lin won his fifth World title and has yet to win another.
After that year, there was a noticeable change of guards in the sport.
Lin Dan chose to focus on his commercial exploits while his successor, Chen Long, kept Lee at bay at both the 2014 and 2015 World Championships finals.
Still the best of sports is seen when statistics have its off day.
With a head-to-head record between the pair of 28 wins to Lin Dan vs. Lee Chong Wei’s 12, Lee ended his Olympic hoodoo against Lin Dan at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. He defeated Lin Dan in the semi-final in three nail-biting games.
Optimism for Malaysia to land its first-ever Olympic gold medal soared. When Chen Long beat Lee Chong Wei to win his first Olympic title in just two straight games, some would call it a universal conspiracy, others call it destiny.
TRULY SOMETHING SPECIAL
Lin Dan, who went home empty-handed at the Rio 2016 Games, will still go down into the history books as badminton’s most decorated and influential player.
Coming in second will never be the fairytale outcome for Malaysians longing to hear the timeless beauty of ‘Negaraku’ play at the Olympic Games.
If the greatness of a champion is measured by that of his most bitter rival, perhaps it is not always true that no one remembers who came in second.
READ: Lee Chong Wei's retirement leaves 'Super Dan' ploughing lonely Olympic furrow
Lin Dan famously said over and again, there would not have been a Lin Dan if not for a Lee Chong Wei. No one brought out the best of Lin Dan the way Lee Chong Wei did.
Together they turned badminton into something truly, truly special for the world.
Lest we forget.
Jan Lin Lee was formerly the Press Officer at the Badminton World Federation based in Malaysia before joining the Olympic Channel as Commissioning Editor of Originals and branded content based in Spain. She is now a film producer of sports documentaries in Hollywood, based in the US.