One way of looking at it is Lee Chong Wei went for four Olympics, reached three finals and won a silver medal each of those times. In the last of those instances in 2016, the much-revered badminton legend, who announced his retirement, even beat arch rival Lin Dan, denying his Chinese nemesis a third straight final. Despite these highs, the Malaysian legend, who is recovering from nasopharynx cancer, apologised to his countryman for “not delivering an Olympic gold”. He shouldn’t have.
The Chong Wei faithful, present beyond Malaysian borders, adored him. They didn’t mind the fact he couldn’t cross the threshold to win gold in three Olympics, three World Championships and one Asian Games.
Two decades of excellence is too long to scrunch into a regret — though Chong Wei was known to dwell on it compulsively, as he sought answers for what more he could do against his Chinese peers. Along the way, Chong Wei found the rest of the world rooting for him. While Lin Dan had the might of the Chinese system behind him, the Malaysian chose the unglamorous path of playing week in, week out, rewarded with a stay at World No 1 for 349 weeks. Curiously, he couldn’t hold on to reach the well-rounded 350 weeks mark.
But perfect figures will do no justice to the emotion that would run through a crowd when Chong Wei stepped on the court. If his rubber-band body that would dive around ceaselessly didn’t get you to the edge of the seat, then his eight-feet leaps in the air did.
His cancer diagnosis had sent badminton fans into desperate prayers. The ultimate compliment, though, came from the only man who could’ve spared Chong Wei fans all this heartbreak: Lin Dan acknowledged “no one will accompany me on court anymore”.