Lee Chong Wei versus Lin Dan: fierce rivalry, friendship and a compelling Olympic story
Malaysia’s No 1 badminton hope had always been the bridesmaid at the majors against the Chinese superstar but not this time as he will vie for the gold medal in men’s singles
In the Chinese media, the lead-up to Lin Dan’s semi-final against Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei was tinged with talk of China’s failure to sweep the Rio badminton golds.
That is probably relevant for any other match involving any other Chinese player. But when it comes to Lin Dan versus Lee Chong Wei at the Olympics, it takes on a greater meaning.
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Such a match-up goes beyond China or even Malaysia, who are desperate for their first gold medal. It’s about a lifelong rivalry, friendship and redemption, with Lee having most to lose had he failed to win. And the only stage where this can be played out is at the Olympics.
After Lee celebrated his 15-21, 21-11, 22-20 victory, he went up to Lin and hugged him. Both players had taken their shirts off to exchange – a mark of their friendship and the respect they have for each other on the badminton court.
Lee had lost the previous two Olympic finals to Lin, even though the Malaysian had reigned as the world number one for much longer.
It seemed that Lin cared little for the world circuit titles Lee was picking up with regularity and only came out to truly play at the big events such as Olympics, world championships and All England competitions.
So, for Lee to have won in Rio, in the Olympic theatre, is proof to himself and the millions of Malaysians following him that he is no longer the poor man of this rivalry.
Such was the intensity of the match, especially in a tight third game, that when Lee dropped to the floor and covered his face with his hands in triumph one would have thought he had won gold.
But it was just a semi-final. The final is to come against another Chinese, Chen Long. Beating Lin , though, was a huge psychological hurdle overcome.
“I am very happy. I just tried my best to win today’s match,” said Lee. “This is my first time beating Lin Dan in a big competition and I lost both times in the final in 2008 and 2012.
“This is my last Olympics and I have never won the gold medal so now it’s just one more step. I think it’s good for my retirement.
“There was more pressure on my side. I have never been world No 1 and beaten an Olympic champion so I think one more step and I will try my very best in tomorrow’s match.
“We talked about it with the coach before how we have had pressure in the past one-and-a-half years. Malaysia has also put so much hope on us.”
Less than two years ago, it seemed unlikely that Lee would even be at the Olympics. He was suspended for eight months because of a doping offence, which he said was a dark period in his life when everyone shunned him except his wife.
He returned to the world number one spot but few thought he would be able to beat Lin in the Chinese player’s Olympic stronghold.
But Lee did so in one of the best matches the two have played, lighting up the badminton tournament and providing one of the highlights of the Games – even though no medal was involved.
“It is very unexpected to be able to get back up after the doping incident,” said Lee. “I’m happy to be qualified in the first place and the Olympics is very different. It has been a pleasure to play in the Olympics and my performances have been great so far.”
For Lin, the defeat ended his run at the Olympics, having won gold in Beijing 2008 and London 2012. “Super Dan” no longer reigns under the five rings.
“I think both of us are under a similar level of pressure because both of us really wanted to win this match,” said Lin. “ However, I think we brought out the best match possible, as you can see in the way the crowd was cheering so loud.
“I feel relieved because today’s match has ended.
“I think [our rivalry] is pretty close for me and it’s a little bit of a pity to end it this way.
“However, I think today’s biggest result is that our audience – no matter if they are here live or watching on TV – can enjoy a really good match that has the best quality ever. I think that is one of the best points.”