Esquire Malaysia, April 2013
Datuk Lee Chong Wei
The last champion standing in a sport so far removed from its glory days we can barely remember them.
Words by Sophia Goh
When Datuk Lee Chong Wei won the badminton men’s singles silver medal at last year’s Olympic Games, narrowly losing the gold to archrival and friend Lin Dan of China, Malaysian fans took to Facebook and Twitter to express their unconditional support of their hero.
Posts and tweets ranged from straightforward declarations of encouragement to suggestions that Chong Wei be made prime minister for his ability to unite the country through his actions alone (and we hope the politicians were taking notes.)
It was a devastating defeat to be sure, made more so by the fact that it was Chong Wei’s second consecutive Olympic final loss, and to the same opponent at that. But then, as many sportsmen will attest, a loss is a loss, and they are all disappointing. He is definitely proud to have put Malaysia on the map. “If I had to say what my biggest achievement is, it’ll be my two Olympic silver medals,” he says.
Besides, it was hardly going to be his last. Just a few weeks ago, the 30-year-old lost to China’s Chen Long in the final of the All-England Championships, missing the opportunity to win the title for the third time.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that extraordinary success is never the result of hard work alone. Arbitrary factors come into play as well, though the significance of those seemingly unrelated decisions usually aren’t revealed until much later on.
For Chong Wei, Malaysia’s badminton superhero and current world number one player, hindsight is indeed 20/20. The youngest of four children, his first love was actually basketball, and it wasn’t until his mother, seeing how tanned he was getting from all those hours spent on an outdoor court, disallowed him from playing anymore that he stopped.
His father was an avid badminton player, and one day brought Chong Wei, then just 11 years old, along to one of his games. As fate would have it, a badminton coach was also present, saw potential in the skinny little kid, and immediately offered to train Chong Wei.
Delighted and proud, his father was open to the idea, but said he was too busy to ferry Chong Wei to and from training every day after school. Not to worry, said the coach, leave it to me. All you have to do is bring him here, and I promise to get him home safely after training. So Lee Sr. said yes.
They didn’t know it at the time but it would turn out that Chong Wei possessed not only the natural agility, speed and athleticism needed to play badminton well, but also a physical strength surprising for someone so slight, and the perseverance that is so crucial to training and competitive sport.
When he was 17, Chong Wei caught the eye of former national player-turned-coach Datuk Misbun Sidek, who drafted him into the national squad. Misbun went on to become Chong Wei’s mentor and coach of seven years, and would, in time, transform him from promising national player to world number one.
Chong Wei has told the story of how, during one of their first meetings, Misbun had asked him what he wanted to achieve in his career. Chong Wei replied that he wanted to make money. Misbun asked him the question again, and Chong Wei told him he needed the cash to buy a car. The third and final the question was posed to him, Chong Wei said he wanted to become the best player in the national team. “He then told me to give everything in training, and he would take care of the rest,” Chong Wei remembers.
Misbun meant what he said, and Chong Wei tried his best to keep his side of the bargain. Misbun was a tough coach, and on occasion, reduced his protégé to tears. One time, Chong Wei was given a two-week ban from training for throwing a tantrum. “It was very tough training under Misbun,” he once admitted. “I would cry, and he would ignore me, take his racquets and go home.”
Evidently, the grueling work has paid off. Even though Misbun hasn’t trained Chong Wei since early 2011, Chong Wei knows he is forever indebted to his former coach, and they remain close. When Chong Wei returned to Kuala Lumpur after the Olympics last year, Misbun was one of the first people he called.
For someone who fell into the sport almost by chance, Chong Wei has received far more from badminton than he could ever have dreamed of. To date, he has won over 40 singles titles, and has held the world number one ranking for a record 199 consecutive weeks, from August 2008 to June 2012.
Once again, all eyes will be on him as he attempts to become the first Malaysian to win the World Championship title this season. And maybe, just maybe – after his newly minted marriage to sweetheart Wong Mew Choo – fatherhood will be the added push and inspiration he needs to go all the way.