After bagging 69 titles throughout his career and spending a 199-week streak from 2008-2012 as the World No 1, national shuttler Datuk Lee Chong Wei announced his retirement from the sport he’s devoted his life to.
“I would like to announce that I’m retiring from the sport after 19 years,” said the 36-year-old, who tried to hold back tears when he thanked his coaches afterwards. Although Chong Wei stressed his desire to compete in the Olympics to resume his grand rivalry with China’s Lin Dan, the shuttler did not get the green lights from his doctors.
It took Chong Wei nearly two decades of succeeding at some of the world’s biggest competitions to achieve such enduring excellence. When he's in a game, fans get around a big TV, be it at a kopitiam or a mamak stall to watch. It's hard to look away when he plays. Lunging and crisscrossing around the court, he still conjures a gameplay that's nail-biting and ethereal at once, when so many factors – the rackets, the net, the ostentatious opponent, the fickle shuttlecock – seem to conspire against him.
Having purpose in sports matters, but a purposeful career in sports matters more. Chong Wei has played the game of his life, serving us spectacle after spectacle of exhilarating badminton – this is a feat that will surely inspire Malaysians for generations to come.
Chong Wei’s final Olympics match in Rio, 2016
It was the semi-finals between badminton’s eternal greats: Chong Wei and Lin Dan, titans of the sport for more than a decade. But Chong Wei decided he didn’t want to play the bridesmaid anymore, crushing his arch-nemesis in a dramatic three-set that finally saw him sink to his knees – face covered with his hands – in elation. Cheers erupted across all mamak stalls in Malaysia.
A little beat up but still fired up, Chong Wei found the will to carry us all into the finals against Chen Long. He served and smashed intermittently with success, answering the Chinese player’s cutting pace with swift steps of his own. Alas, the gold was not ours for the taking. There was a rising swell of noise and applause during the medal giving ceremony, and at some point, the former World No 1 men’s singles shuttler cried. But the loss made for a richer story than anybody else’s victory that day because this was a man who converted pure skill into greatness; a sportsman forged from agonising losses and triumphs. Gold or no gold, this feted legend has nothing left to prove.
A victor on- and off-court
Chong Wei faced the toughest battle of his life when he was diagnosed with nose cancer in August 2018. But always the fighter, the shuttler picked himself back up and summoned his fighting spirit to combat the disease. “When I found out I had cancer, I cried for a week. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t know what to do when I was diagnosed,” he said during a tell-all press conference at the Badminton Academy of Malaysia. “I have not thought about retirement yet, I still have the desire to represent Malaysia. I still love badminton.”
A sportsperson to all
Chong Wei penned a Malay pantun in his poignant Hari Raya wish on Instagram on June 5 that read: “Chong Wei dah cuba sedaya upaya; Emas Olimpik tidak terdaya; Kepada semua Selamat Hari Raya; Mohon maaf atas segalanya.” The shuttler also recalled his younger days as a district player when he would have sahoor with his teammates. “During training, some of my teammates were fasting. We respected them and if we wanted to drink, we would go to the back of the court,” he added.
His post received more than 35,000 likes with Malaysians responding with thanks and wishes. One netizen commented that she couldn’t stop smiling reading his Ramadan post, and called it a demonstration of “open, understanding, fun and loving Malaysians”.
Making children’s dream come true
A philanthropist committed to giving back and nurturing the young, Chong Wei is a constant granter of Make-A-Wish Malaysia, a foundation that fulfils the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions. He took the time off his schedule to play a game of badminton with his young fan, Yong Sheng, who was diagnosed with suprasellar germ cell tumour. The 14-year-old also received movie tickets to the premiere of Chong Wei’s biopic, a racket and t-shirt.
Recapturing the Thomas Cup glory and passing the baton
Prior to Malaysia’s Thomas Cup success in 1992, badminton was a little known sport. Adamant to repeat the history of winning again, the seasoned player constantly encouraged his juniors to never admit defeat. In fact, at 19, Chong Wei could only watch his seniors play from the spectator bench but he took the opportunity to study the skills of the veterans.
His coach Misbun Sidek once said: " He loves badminton so much and has a strong desire to win the Olympics, World Championships as well as the Thomas Cup, which he fought his heart out and came so close to winning previously. Even so, he never stops trying... He’s surely one the greatest of his era, there’s no doubt about it.”
Additional research by Emily Yap.