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Viktor Axelsen of Team Denmark celebrates after winning the men’s singles gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Photo: Getty Images

Tokyo Olympics: how the Danish ‘golden dragon’ is using Mandarin to bridge a gap with his badminton fans

  • The gold-medal-winning badminton player has been learning Mandarin for seven years, and is now proficient in the language
  • His teacher says he approaches the language with the same work ethic as his badminton

In early August in Denmark, Zhang Lianying’s WeChat notifications pinged, indicating that he had received a voice message. When he listened on his phone, he heard a recording in Mandarin that said simply: “I don’t know what to say. Thank you very much.”

The note of gratitude came from Viktor Axelsen, a Danish badminton player who, minutes before, had just won his first Olympics gold medal by beating defending champion Chen Long in the men’s singles tournament.

Zhang is Axelsen’s technical coach, and a significant part of their relationship is that they communicate in Mandarin, which Zhang said helps keep Axelsen on his toes.

Axelsen takes a selfie with Zhang Lianying, his coach, who was one of the first people he called after winning the Olympics gold medal. Photo: Zhang Lianying
The coach, who hails from Tianjin municipality in northern China, was invited to Denmark 32 years ago to train Jon Holst Christensen, who competed in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and has since trained several top Danish players.

Zhang has spent so much time in Denmark that he believes his Chinese has become rusty.

“But Viktor forces me to speak Mandarin and, between shuttles flying around the court, he will ask for the correct translation of complex proverbs or remind me that a Chinese holiday is coming up and that we should celebrate.”

Axelsen, whose Chinese name is An Sai Long, a play on words that mixes his surname with the character for “dragon”, started to practise the language seven years ago with the hope of learning “just a bit of survival Chinese” for his tournaments in China.


As Summer Olympics draw to a close, Beijing prepares for Winter Games

As Summer Olympics draw to a close, Beijing prepares for Winter Games

But when he learned how important badminton is in the country, he decided that he owed it to his Chinese fans to learn their language properly.

“When I set myself a goal, I want to follow through and try to get as far as my time and talent allow,” said Axelsen.

Today, Axelsen can speak to the press in Mandarin, engage with fans in their language, post on social media and even conquer impressive Chinese tongue twisters.

Axelsen’s Chinese teacher Wen Deng, who lives in Beijing, admitted to initial trepidations when she first found out that she would teach Mandarin to a famous Danish badminton player.

“I was afraid that he might be arrogant because he was famous and that he would not listen to me,” she said.

Axelsen speaks with Chen Long after beating him to win the gold medal for the men’s single badminton at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Photo: Getty Images

But Deng’s new student turned out to be extremely hard-working and hungry to learn.

“Whenever I teach him new grammar, no matter how difficult it is, he always understands it perfectly. I love to hear him use it in Chinese interviews,” said Deng, who uses different teaching tools such as WeChat voice calls, tailor-made PDFs and videos in Chinese.

Axelsen said he would “listen to podcasts, listen to Chinese radio, watch Chinese television shows and practise a lot with [Zhang] at our training sessions. But I must say that the single most important thing for my Chinese learning has been Wen’s classes,” he said.

Shining brighter than an Olympic gold

Discipline very much characterises Axelsen. He is not one to give up, make excuses or even take breaks.

After sustaining an injury at a tournament in Dubai, doctors told the young player to take a complete break from training.

“But Viktor could not imagine even a short break, so he convinced me to find a secret training facility so that we could get him back on his feet,” said Zhang.

Similarly, Deng recalled when Axelsen sent her a message as soon as he landed in Copenhagen after the World Championships in Jakarta. He asked her for more homework.

“When I told him that I assumed he needed a little break after the long trip, he just said, ‘I can take breaks when I’m old’,” recalled Deng.

Axelsen pictured with his fiancée Natalia Koch Rohde and daughter Vega. Photo: Billedbladet

Axelsen’s coach Zhang even had to warn his current fiancée about the badminton star’s work ethic. When Natalia Koch Rohde expressed romantic interest in Axelsen, Zhang told her he puts badminton first, family second.

“Are you OK with that?” he asked.

She was. But then again, as an elite badminton player herself, she would understand. In 2020, the couple welcomed a daughter, named Vega, and Axelsen is said only to speak Chinese with the infant.

Heart-warming scenes from Axelsen’s homecoming from Tokyo last week show a celebration of Axelsen the person – not just the badminton player and Chinese speaker.

“Viktor respects everyone, no matter who they are. Me, his coaches, reporters and not least his fans,” said Deng.

On the day of Axelsen’s arrival from Tokyo, Zhang said about his long-time friend:

“An Sai Long’s character shines brighter than Olympic gold.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: How Mandarin keeps Danish Olympic champion on his toes