Athens 2004 Olympic Games12 September, 2017
It was hard to escape a feeling that the presence of the Acropolis and the Temple of Zeus had affected the badminton in Athens. These were billed as the Olympics which were coming home, but some of the players appeared to feel that they had arrived in the presence of something overwhelming. Only one favourite won a title, the top seeds fell at the first hurdle in two events, and an unseeded player with a point to prove, Taufik Hidayat, won the men’s singles. His female counterpart Zhang Ning proved another, more universal point - that age cannot always be measured by numbers.
Wherever the Olympics are held the atmosphere is more highly charged than in any other tournament. Here though the voltage went off the metrological scale.
The most electrifying player, Taufik Hidayat, had been labelled by TV commentators as the “wild child”. In fact he was anything but that in Athens, playing the most consistently excellent badminton of his life and achieving the most important result of his career.
The Indonesian claimed he was annoyed at not being seeded. His reaction was to beat Wong Choon Hann, the Commonwealth champion from Malaysia, then Peter Gade, the former world number one from Denmark, and finally Shon Seung Mo, the seventh seeded Korean who had been a special kind of giant-killer, by 15-8, 15-7.
Despite being without two-thirds of his sight in one eye – the result of a school accident in which he was hit by a shuttlecock – Shon managed to cause two upsets. Even in the final stages of a gruelling tournament he was still strong enough to lead Hidayat by 7-1 in the first game and 3-0 in the second.
Hidayat though managed to combine great passion with good focus. He was excellent in mid-court, clever with changes of pace, and wonderfully deft at the net. When his special moment came he tried to hide his tears but it proved impossible.
He knew from an early stage that he might never have a better chance of a gold medal. The two great Chinese hopes, seeded one and two, had been quickly removed from his path.
Indeed the men’s singles could not have begun with greater shocks. Top-seeded Lin Dan, already a legend in the making, lost in straight games in the first round to Ronald Susilo of Singapore, acknowledging he had made too many errors. Susilo reckoned Lin was “too eager to win”.
The scale of the shock was suggested by Susilo managing only one more win before being ousted himself, 15-10, 15-1 in the quarter-finals by Boonsak Ponsana of Thailand. While that was happening, another quarter-final brought the exit of the second-seeded Chen Hong.
Possessed with one of the steepest and fastest jump smashes ever seen, Chen was unable to land it often enough. Inexperience may have been a factor in his demise. Finding himself at the age of 20 suddenly the spearhead of Chinese hopes, the responsibility may have affected him.
Chen’s 15-10, 4-15, 10-15 loss was inflicted by the industrious Shon, who went on to beat Sony Dwi Kuncoro of Indonesia and become the first Korean in an Olympic men’s singles final.
The top seed also failed to reach the women’s singles final. This time the blow to China’s gold medal hopes was repaired.
It happened when Gong Ruina, an All-England champion with aspirations in TV drama, was trampled 11-4, 11-2 by Mia Audina of The Netherlands, who retained an ability to contort herself into some of the most improbable round-the-head shots the game has ever seen. This setback accelerated Gong’s early retirement.
But against Zhang Ning in the final Audina was unable to capitalise. For the third time in a week the second-seeded Chinese player recovered from a game down, edging tenaciously and intelligently back, and completing an 8-11, 11-6, 11-7 success.
Whenever the gold medal appeared to be coming into Audina’s view, it tantalisingly receded - for the second time in an Olympic final. Nevertheless she was closer to winning as a Dutch player here than as an Indonesian in Atlanta in her first Olympic final.
Not everyone realized how formidable Zhang was. She was 28, an age at which some players are pensioned, but instead she became one of the most famous late developers of all. She ignored being labelled a veteran, and discounted talk of what a “miracle” it would be to win at her age. Few guessed that yet more Olympic glory lay ahead.
A ground-shaker as violent as that in the men’s singles erupted in the men’s doubles too. Top-seeded Lars Paaske and Jonas Rasmussen were tumbled immediately out by Yim Bang Eun and Kim Yong-Hyun in yet another tension-charged encounter, again illustrating how reputations can mean little amidst the overwhelming emotions of the Olympics.
The unseeded Koreans overcame the Danes 7-15, 15-6, 15-12, opening a route for their compatriot Kim Dong Moon to become the first male badminton player to win two Olympic gold medals. Kim’s men’s doubles success with Ha Tae-Kwon followed his capture of the mixed doubles title eight years previously in Atlanta.
Meanwhile Gao Ling confirmed herself as one of the greats when she and Zhang Jun won the mixed doubles for the second successive Games, emulating their compatriots Ge Fei and Gu Jun who became the first players to retain an Olympic title when they won the women’s doubles again in Sydney.
Gao was also close to becoming the first player to win two gold medals in the same Games, but she and Huang Sui lost a lengthy women’s doubles final 15-7, 4-15, 8-15 to their compatriots Zhang Jiewen and Yang Wei.
However Gao did become the first player to win either a third or a fourth Olympic medal, having taken a bronze in women's doubles and a gold in the mixed doubles in Sydney.
These successes put China top of the medal table for a second time, with three golds. It was an ideal preview for the extravagantly colourful occasion four years later, when the Olympic Games moved to the capital city of badminton’s greatest nation.
-- By Richard Eaton