SINGAPORE: Pyambuugiin Tuul. Remember him? Well, it’s hard enough remembering successful Mongolian athletes, let alone the ones that never win a thing.
Yet, it’s a name etched in sporting lore.
When he was 19, Tuul lost his sight in a workplace accident. Being struck blind suddenly, as you would imagine, can be a devastating setback for anyone. And so it was for Tuul.
But that did not stop him dreaming: The determined young chap yearned to compete at the Olympics.
Fourteen years later in 1992, and six months after an operation restored sight in one of his eyes, he achieved that goal in Barcelona. He ran in the marathon and finished last.
In his taped-up (it broke earlier that day) Tootsie-style specs, Tuul took nearly five hours to complete the race - finishing nearly an hour after the second last competitor crossed the line.
And because he was so slow, he wasn’t allowed to finish in the main stadium where the Games’ closing ceremony was being held. Instead he was diverted to the practice track next door, where he achieved a lifetime’s ambition in a dimly lit arena; most of the floodlights had already been turned off.
Those who witnessed the remarkable moment can still recall how a convoy of police motorbikes and race judges in a car ushered a staggering one-eyed Mongolian to his sporting El Dorado.
Tuul was later honoured by the Olympic movement for being an embodiment of its spirit and ideals.
MISBUN SIDEK, A FORCE OF NATURE
That year, 1992, was also when badminton entered the Olympic fold as a competitive sport.
In an instant, Olympic gold became the sport’s Holy Grail – replacing the coveted All England Championships and the team event Thomas Cup.
In the sleepy riverine town of Bagan Serai in Perak, a 10-year-old basketball-loving kid hardly paid any attention to the exploits of his countrymen on the badminton courts of Catalonia. There, the celebrated doubles pair Razif and Jalani Sidek were en route to becoming Malaysia’s first ever Olympic medallists.
Lee Chong Wei only took up the sport a year later and as he got better, caught the eye of Misbun – the older brother Razif and Jalani.
In his time, Misbun Sidek was a force of nature as Malaysia’s No 1 singles player.
A feisty bruiser on the court, Misbun fashioned himself as lovable rogue who sported mullets, dyed mops and mohawks. And he had an upturned collar long before Eric Cantona became a professional footballer.
He had one burning desire: To win the All England Championships. He reached the final in 1986, where he lost heavily to Denmark’s Morten Frost. In 1988, he led Malaysia to their first Thomas Cup final in 12 years. And lost again.
When he retired a year later, at 29, he did so as his sport’s nearly man. Someone not having quite crossed the line, despite his reservoir of potential. It’s the kind of legacy that would’ve left most sportsmen embittered, but not Misbun.
For he became, by all accounts, an affectionate coach and a diligent scout, scouring the length and breadth of Malaysia for talent. And he discovered many gems along the way, but none more sterling than the young Lee.
A STREETFIGHTER GOING FOR GOLD
Misbun crafted Lee in his mould, to be a streetfighter, to never give up, to hustle for every point.
More than any skill, it was this spirit which Misbun imbued Lee with. Together they had eyes on one thing: Gold at the Olympics.
But such was Lee’s talent, that he scooped nearly every other title along the way. He won four All-England titles and by time he retired this week, he had 69 titles to Misbun’s eight.
Alas, he will be remembered for the three Olympic silver medals from 2008, 2012 and 2016.
Lee himself knew he’d forever be cast as badminton’s most bejewelled bridesmaid – and predictably, his words after losing to Chen Long in Rio were: “I’ll be back.”
But even then, Lee was already past his prime.
Merely to watch him battle Chen, seven years his junior, was a sight to behold. The 34-year-old digging deep, straining every sinew, to produce his trademark leaping smash and twisty flicks.
That Lee overcame Lin Dan in the semis, who twice denied him Olympic gold was, to some degree, his redemption – a nemesis finally slayed.
ACHIEVED SO MUCH
Malaysia has never won an Olympic gold – for years, Lee was their best, nay, only hope. So he endeavoured to stay the course – to never let down his countryman and to win them that gold.
One last tilt in Tokyo, he promised.
But the field was getting stronger and tougher.
Quicker, younger, more technically gifted opponents were setting the badminton circuit alight, from Japan’s Kento Momota, to Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen and India’s Srikanth Kidambi.
And also hanging about … Yes, you guessed it: Chen Long and Lin Dan.
To play himself into contention, Lee would have to put himself through the most gruelling of conditioning and training programmes, not to mention the other untold sacrifices he’d need to make.
Yet with Misbun by his side, he felt strong, felt his dream within reach. The two nearly men plotting for one final shakedown.
Then … the cancer.
No issue, the champion assured us. Lee told himself he’d deal with it and return to training at the soonest. And he was true to his word.
When the disease went into remission, he was back on court: Eyes firmly on Tokyo.
If there’s one thing to be critical of Lee, it’s that – like all champions – he didn’t know when to stop. But that’s the sort of indefatigability that make winners, winners.
The lamentable thing about this is that Lee likely never stepped back to realise how much he had achieved. There was no need to have said “Sorry” this week. No need.
After all, he held the world No 1 ranking for 199 consecutive weeks, spending a total of nearly 350 weeks at the top.
And, how many triple Olympic silver medallists are there? This isn’t even counting the scores of other titles and crowns he won over 19 years. They boy done good, as they say.
THE BRAVEST MOVE OF HIS LIFE
When Pyambuugiin Tuul was asked shortly after he had his fulfilled his Olympic dream if that was his greatest, happiest moment. He said no. Seeing his wife and two daughters for the first time just months earlier was.
“They’re beautiful,” he added.
While Lee and his fans want to see him one last time at the Olympics, his family needs their father and husband to stay healthy. They need him alive and well. They need him off the court.
That’s the fundamental point.
On calling time on his storied career on Thursday, Lee made perhaps the toughest and the bravest move of his life. Saying goodbye to a dream you’ve long held can be heart-wrenchingly painful.
Lee Chong Wei has nothing to apologise for, and everything to be proud of.