London 2012 Olympic Games07 April, 2016
There was talk of badminton coming home. After 19 years it returned to Wembley Arena, home of the All-England Open for almost four decades when it was the world’s most important tournament.
Now it housed perhaps the world’s most important match, a stupendous Olympic men’s singles final in which China’s Lin Dan beat Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei by the narrowest of margins, prompting many to call it the greatest ever.
It was followed by Zhao Yunlei becoming the first badminton player to win two gold medals in the same Olympics, and by China becoming the first nation to win all five titles. The message from a refurbished Wembley was clear – the balance of power had long ago moved east.
The 80-year-old former Empire Pool was still sufficiently familiar for some people to feel that the ghost of Malaysian great, Eddy Choong, might be lurking in the old stone corridors, or that the presence of Erland Kops, Judy Hashman and Rudy Hartono was energising the atmosphere.
Here too Zhang Ailing once became the first Chinese player to win a major international title. So it was perhaps appropriate that China made history again, winning every Olympic title at the 2012 badminton event.
The feng shui seemed to usher the focus from the past to the present remorselessly. Lin Dan’s 15-21, 21-10, 21-19 men’s singles winover Lee Chong Wei was certainly the greatest Olympic final yet seen, and a cause of awe and wonder in all who saw it.
It showcased the lightness of foot which made Lee the most graceful of players and it contrasted that with the chameleon tactical changes which made Lin so unpredictably exciting. The Malaysian had been world number one for 199 weeks, and the Chinese player was labelled the greatest of all time. No wonder their showdown contained the brilliance, variety and uncertainty to make it unforgettable.
Lee began by moving as well as ever, despite doubts about his fitness, perhaps feeding from the adrenaline inspired by huge crowd support. The first game was soon his.
The second produced a tidal shift. A dynamic increase in pace took Lin to a long lead, causing questions whether Lee’s injury problems might still be bothering him.
Lee nevertheless made a courageous third game push, edging skilfully up to 15 -13 and to 18 -16. From 19 -18 however he was mostly just hanging on, using his economical lift–clear-drop patterns to stay in the rallies.
It was almost but not quite enough. At vital moments Lin found his special instinct for winning, from 19-19 delivering two big attacks which were unstoppable.
These made him the first to win the Olympic men’s singles title twice. "It wasn't easy to retain this after four years," he said. "Chong Wei is such a brilliant rival that I treasure chances to play against him.”
It had been so extraordinary that both men reconsidered their retirement plans. Two other legends, Taufik Hidayat of Indonesia and Peter Gade of Denmark, however, continued to the exit.
Hidayat, the 2004 Olympic champion, lost to Lin in the last 16, while Gade, who had been among the game’s elite for a decade and a half, lost a quarter-final to Chen Long, the third seed from China.
A more surprising champion emerged from the women’s singles. Li Xuerui, a 21-year-old, had squeezed into the Games only at the last moment instead of her Chinese colleague Wang Shixian, a former number one, and won the final against another compatriot, Wang Yihan, the current number one.
Li beat Wang 21-15, 21-23, 21-17, overcoming the disappointment of missing two match points in the second game, and beating her more powerful opponent with an almost impudent range of shots.
It thus became a disappointing return for Wang to the arena where she had become world champion 11 months previously, and on the podium she wiped away tears of regret.
Signs of an upset had been immediate. Li was soon 12-7 and 15-8 ahead, moving better, and reacting more quickly to the flat, mid-court exchanges. Wang struggled hard to recover, reaching 15-19 before losing the first game - though the energy she expended here may ultimately have cost her the match.
She dug deeply into emotional resources to rescue the second game, saving one match point at 19-20 after a frantic mid-court rally, and another at 20-21 with a daring kill.
These escapes gave Wang some momentum for a while, helping her to 9-5 in the decider, but the effort slowed her. Only her determination, not the force of her overhead attacks, kept her in it.
Li responded with seven successive points, taking a four-point lead before Wang recovered briefly to 17-17. But by then her resources had dwindled too much to contain a livelier, younger opponent.
China made more history when Zhao Yunlei became the first player to win two gold medals in the same Olympics, she and Tian Qing overcoming the fourth-seeded Japanese, Mizuki Fujii and Reika Kakiiwa, 21-10, 25-23, in the women’s doubles.
Zhao had already won the mixed doubles with Zhang Nan, their 21-11, 21-17 success against compatriots Chen Xu and Ma Jin making them the first love couple to win an Olympic title in tandem.
China’s fifth gold medal provided men’s doubles atonement for Cai Yun and Fu Haifeng. Beaten in the Beijing final they now overcame Denmark’s Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen 21-16, 21-15.
That concluded the tournament. Other conclusions happened too. Tine Baun appealed for video replays to be used following her quarter-final loss to India’s Saina Nehwal in which a controversial line decision went against her. This technology has since become commonplace.
Positive responses also emerged from the widely publicised match-fixing incidents in the women’s doubles. The causes were rapidly investigated and eight players disqualified. "We would like not to be evaluated on a single case, but upon our ability to react,” Thomas Lund, the BWF’s Secretary-General, commented.
It seems this kind of judgment was indeed made. At a dinner with the BWF executive board at Lausanne in 2013, Christophe Dubi, the IOC Olympic Games executive director, said: "S… happens in every sport once in a while – but not often in badminton. What matters to the IOC is how it is handled, and you handled it perfectly.
"Within 24 hours the misbehaving players were heard, sentenced after due process in accordance with your regulations - and on the plane homewards. The Games went on as scheduled".
Text by Richard Eaton