When Malaysian shuttler Dato’ Lee Chong Wei publicly announced his retirement this past June, worldwide tributes from past and present badminton greats poured in endlessly, such was the humble Penang shuttler’s impact on the sport and the peers that crossed paths with him.
Retired legends such as Denmark’s Peter Gade thanked him for his impact on the sport while current world beaters such as Spain’s Carolina Marin and Indonesia’s Anthony Ginting thanked him for being their role model and inspiration.
Regrettably, Lee’s retirement also brought an end to the sport’s greatest rivalry of all time, with his lifelong adversary Lin Dan wistfully posting on his social media that “There is no one to accompany me on the court anymore”.
Lee retires as arguably the game’s greatest, being the only player who has won every one of Badminton World Federation’s (BWF) Super Series Premier events, competitions that were second only to the Badminton World Championships.
During his career, he made the world number one ranking his own, breaking the world record for holding it for six consecutive years between 2008 and 2013.
In spite of what his highly decorated sporting legacy would suggest, the story and journey of this Malaysian badminton legend was anything but straightforward.
In fact, he would not even have picked up badminton or been a ‘Lee’ if not for the traditional mindsets and practicality of his impoverished parents.
Born in 1982 as the youngest of four children in the household, friends and relatives of his parents advised them to give Lee up for adoption, a rather common and acceptable practice amongst the Chinese in the past, given the financial hardships they were already facing with three children. Luckily, Lee’s mother disagreed on giving up her own flesh and blood, and raised him despite the hardships.
The mum and children in the household were often involved in part time jobs such as packing rubber bands to support their father, who worked various odd jobs including cab-driving and as a goods transporter.
Lee showed promise in athletic ability, and represented his primary school in both basketball and badminton, and only switched focus to solely badminton when his parents decided to ban him from playing basketball in fear of neglecting his studies.
His father also saw that there was more potential in making a professional career out of badminton than basketball, given the sporting history and environment of Malaysia, which has produced many icons for the sport.
Lee’s exquisite skills, especially his smashes and deceptive agility enables him to overpower opponents despite his relatively small build. The then-17 year old caught the eyes of various coaches at local tournaments. Eventually, he was recruited by national head coach Morten Frost, who recruited him into the national youth set up.
Since marking his debut on the international stage with a third placing at the 2000 World Junior Championships, Lee has not looked back in the years. Growing from strength to strength and winning his first international title at the 2004 Malaysian Open, Lee also secured his first appearance at the Athens Olympics in the same year.
He won his first Olympic silver medal in 2008, albeit in a comprehensive loss to Lin Dan in two straight sets during the final. His performance also earned him the title of “Dato” from the governor of Penang, receiving an award known as the Darjah Setia Pangkuan Negeri (DSPN), limited to 800 living persons who have contributed unique and valuable services to Malaysian states.
Four years later, Lee took home the silver medal once again, this time losing in a nail biter three set thriller against the same opponent at the London Olympics. Despite the incredible disappointment, Lee maintained his fighting spirit and famously proclaimed “Failures had left their imprint on me, but they are glorious symbols of a veteran warrior, No matter how hard it is, I will never surrender and will battle on in this expedition, like a valorous fighter”.
While he showed no signs of relenting on Super Series wins one after another or relinquishing his world number one ranking for that matter, his career was dealt a stumbling blow in October 2014 when the BWF suspended him from competitive action for eight months for violating an anti-doping rule, after testing positive for Dexamathasone whilst competing during the year.
Lee maintained his innocence, claiming that it was used for injury management given that it was an anti-inflammatory substance, with no intention to cheat. Nonetheless, the damage was done and he labelled this period as “one of the toughest moments in my career”, with his world ranking in free fall just a year before the next edition of the Olympic games.
However, Lee’s resilience and perseverance in private training despite the competitive ban saw him swiftly regain his dominance on court and subsequently, world ranking, following his return, displaying some of his best badminton yet by finally defeating long time foe Lin Dan in the semi-finals of the 2016 Rio Olympics, having qualified for the tournament.
As fate would have it, he fell once again at the final hurdle, half drained by his hard-fought victory in the previous round, to a resolute Chen Long who was in the form of his life. Amidst the tears on the podium, Lee vowed to make another attempt at Olympic Gold if his body would allow it come Tokyo 2020.
Since then, Lee has continued to show that he could compete at the highest level, winning his fourth All England Open in 2017 as well as the men’s singles gold in 2018’s Commonwealth Games. His victory in the 2018 Malaysian Open final over what was widely perceived to be the most consistent and in-form shuttler of this generation in Japan’s Kento Momota was seen as an affirmation that the Malaysian has what it takes to push for a last Olympic appearance.
While Lee was in prime condition to consolidate his legacy by attaining an elusive first Asian Games gold medal following his impressive win over current World Number one Momota, all his efforts were derailed by another massive blow, this time from the doctors, who diagnosed him with nose cancer shortly after the tournament in July 2018.
Lee effectively took an undefined break from the sport to recover from the illness, flying to and fro to receive treatment from specialists in Taiwan, undergoing 33 sessions of proton therapy that left him unable to speak or eat at times, in a period dubbed as a “nightmare” by the player himself.
Nonetheless, as with every setback, badminton still remained at the forefront of his thoughts throughout his rehabilitation, and he remained determine to turn up in his country’s colours for the Tokyo Olympics, pronouncing that “no athlete in Malaysia has ever competed five times at the Olympics, I want to make history”.
Unfortunately, this time round, there was no way back for the shuttler as his competitive return was delayed multiple times since returning to training in January this year, with his Taiwanese doctors failing to give him the all clear and warned that any intense physical activity could undo all the therapy.
This culminated in his public announcement to retire. Poignantly, Malaysia’s king of badminton finally made a decision for himself, his health and his family by calling an end to his career, having shouldered the Olympic dreams of a nation on his thin frame for long over a decade, all at the expense of his personal life.
Critics of Lee will always point to his consistent failings at the final hurdle of the biggest badminton competitions as glaring blemishes in his otherwise highly successful career.
Similarly, haters will always point to his lack of gold medals at the sport’s biggest stages and his poor head to head record against his biggest adversary – Lin Dan, to diminish the legacy of the Penang shuttler.
However, to his fans, nation, and those close to him, he will always be remembered as a mentality giant, possessing an indomitable spirit in the face of a multiple adversities throughout his career, and an outstanding athlete whose loyalty to his country is nothing but awe inspiring.
Lee has consistently returned stronger than before from soul crushing defeats, controversies and adversity time and again. The hardest thing in life is often to find the motivation to push on when you fall flat on your face, to pick yourself up from repeated failures in spite of your best efforts. This is essentially the spirit that Lee Chong Wei embodies – a fighter till the very end, and an inspiration to us all.Leave a comment