Gong Zhichao was born on December 15, 1977, in the county of Anhua, Hunan, China. She studied at the Xiang Hua Zi Di Primary School where she first began playing badminton at the age of 8 years old. In a documentary on CCTV, Gong described her school years during which she would have to wake up very early to train before school. After school was over, she would return to the court and continue to train. Gong trained so hard that blisters formed on her hand. Upon hearing this, her mother started to cook pork hand soup for Gong in the hopes of easing the pain. Her father comforted his young daughter and encouraged her to persevere in order to follow in the footsteps of Tang Jiuhong, a famous badminton player from Anhua County.
Gong’s early efforts paid off when she was invited to join the Hunan provincial team in 1989 at the age of 11 years old. Gong’s natural talent caught the attention of the coaches but they were worried about her body structure. Even after puberty, Gong was only 1.63m tall and weighed 52 kg. With her slight stature, Gong looked more like a long-distance runner than a badminton player. Her fellow Women’s Singles opponents towered over her and the coaching staff was worried that Gong’s petite form put her at a disadvantage. However, Coach Li Fang, 1978 WBF World Championship Women’s Doubles champion, was not deterred by Gong’s height and had confidence in her talents. To prove her point that she could become a top player without being tall, Gong worked even harder than before. Gong became a key player on the provincial team and helped the provincial team achieve good results at the national competition held in Hunan.
In 1992, tragedy struck Gong’s family. Gong suddenly lost her father at the age of 15 years old. Her father had been extremely supportive of his daughter’s playing career and fervently wished that she would reach the highest peaks of the game.
The year of 1992 also marked Gong’s international debut at the China Open. Gong competed in very few international tournaments until her first significant result at the Danish Open in 1994 where she lost in the Quarter-finals to compatriot, Li Xu.
In 1995, the Chinese national team held a selection trial in Beijing and Gong easily qualified for the national B team which was usually composed of junior players. A scant year later, Gong did so well in the competitions between the A and B teams that she was promoted to the A team to work under the guidance of Li Lingwei.
Gong took centre stage at the 1996 Asian Championships in April when she defeated Lee Jo Hyun of Korea, 11-7, 11-1 in the final. A few months later in August, she was unable to replicate her Asian Championship feat when she lost at the semi-final stage against compatriot, Zhang Ning, and at quarter-final stage in Women’s Doubles with partner, Zeng Yaqiong, at the 1996 Malaysia Open. At the 1996 Russian Open in October, Gong encountered 1992 Olympic champion, Susy Susanti, in the Round of 16 and defeated her on the way to the final. In the final, she played fellow Chinese player, Han Jingna, and lost. Gong entered the Danish Open of that year as an unseeded player and encountered the Danish star, Camilla Martin, in the Round of 16. She defeated Martin with the scores of 12-10, 12-9, and won the tournament as a dark horse.
Gong participated at her first All England in which she met Susanti again in the quarterfinal stage. Journalist William Kings wrote: “No respecter of reputations, she overwhelmed Susi Susanti 11-4, 11-7 in the quarter-finals and left you wondering if this was the last time we were to see the four-times champion at the All England.” After Susanti, Ra Kyung Min was Gong’s next victim with the scores of 11-3, 11-2. Prospects looked great for Gong but she sailed into the final round only to crash with the scores of 1-11, 3-11, to her senior teammate, Ye Zhaoying. Her most telling result of the year would be at the 1997 World Championships. Gong steamrolled her way all the way to the finals with only Han Jingna giving her a hard time in the semi-final with the scores of 12-11, 11-8. In the quarterfinals, Gong had crushed Susanti again 11-5, 11-2. In the final round, Gong faced Ye again. The match was closer with the scores of 11-12, 8-11, but Gong was still unable to clinch the title. Gong was a runner-up again at the Japan Open and her only titles of 1997 would be won at the Swedish and China Opens.
The year of 1998 would prove to be a transition period for Gong. Her All England campaign was stopped short at the semi-final stage by Zhang Ning. Seeded second at the 1998 Asian Games, Gong thought her gold medal hopes would be realized when Kanako Yonekura of Japan eliminated first seed, Ye Zhaoying, at the quarter final stage. Prospects looked good for Gong when she met the Japanese player in the ultimate round and easily won the first game 11-1. However, Yonekura pulled another stunner and awarded Gong with a 5-11, 6-11 loss. For 1998, Gong only managed to grab one title at the Japan Open.
Even though she had only won a handful of international titles, Gong had established herself as the cream of the crop. In 1998, Gillian Clark wrote, “Gong Zhichao’s style is so typical of all the Chinese players under the guidance of Li Lingwei – great footwork coupled with superb rackets skills. But Gong stands out because she has particularly quick feet. Her good body posture, and steady centre of gravity, means that she doesn’t waste energy on transferring her own body weight. This makes her one of the most economical movers in the game.” Continuing on with her analysis of Gong’s game, Clark said, “She has managed to develop and combine the best qualities from both Susi Susanti’s and Ye Zhaoying’s games. Without being over patient she has consistency, coupled with the ability and courage to dictate the pace and really go for her winning shots. Her racket skills are excellent, although she is not yet so imaginative in her choice of shot as the reigning champion (Ye). But perhaps her biggest asset is her temperament, cool in a crisis and yet ruthless in attack.”
Despite such praise, Gong would go through a title drought until 2000. At the 2000 All England, she proved that she was worthy of her first seeding and finally won her first title at the prestigious tournament after beating compatriot Dai Yun 11-5, 8-11, 11-5, in the final. A month later, Gong continued her winning streak and snatched the Japan Open title away from Ye. In August, she rose to the occasion again and defeated Dai Yun to reach the highest step on the podium at the Malaysia Open.
Due to her run of good results, Gong was seeded first at the Sydney Olympics. The top seed sailed effortlessly into the semi-finals where she was to meet Ye. On the other side of the draw, Camilla Martin of Denmark also lived up to her seeding and crushed Dai Yun 11-5, 11-0. Coach Li Yongbo felt that Gong had a better chance of defeating Martin and instructed Ye to lose to Gong. Ye complied and conceded the match to Gong with the scores of 8-11, 8-11. The public suspected of foul play behind the scenes but it was not until years after the fact that Li finally admitted his guilt.
The scene was set for a massive showdown between Gong and Martin who were both looking to secure the coveted Olympic gold medal which was only available once every quadrennial. Right from the start, Martin quickly created great distances with tight net play and drop shots. Gong was trailing 5-7 and was done 7-10 in the first game when Martin began making mistakes. Martin lost her momentum and Gong made 6 points in row to win the first game 13-10. After her devastating loss with such a big lead, Martin was unable to regain her composure and Gong easily defeated her in the second game 11-3.
After winning the Olympic gold medal, Gong brought her medal to her father’s tomb to honor his dedication and belief in her. After her father’s passing, Gong called her mother every second day and brought her small gifts from her travels. It was Gong’s way of thanking her mother for her everlasting support.
Gong helped China win 3 consecutive world mixed team championships from 1997 to 2001. In both 1997 and 2001, Gong won the third decisive match out of 5 matches against South Korea and Indonesia respectively in the final round. Out of these 3 campaigns, Gong only dropped one match.
Gong and her teammates had similar success at the Uber Cup. China won 2 consecutive cups in 1998 and 2000. In 1998, Gong once again won the third and deciding match in the final round against Indonesia. Gong helped whitewashed Denmark 3-0 in the final with a strong opening victory against Camilla Martin 11-9, 11-5.
To complete their undisputed winning streak in Women’s team competition from 1997 to 2001, China presented a near perfect squad at the 1998 Asian Games. The Chinese team whitewashed Hong Kong and Japan 5 games to 0 in the quarters and semis respectively. The Chinese women dropped only a single Women’s Singles match against Korea in the final. Gong had the honour of winning the third and deciding to secure China’s win.
In her last year of competition, Gong grabbed a second consecutive title at the 2001 All England. This would be the last international title of her career as she missed out once again on a World Championships title. Gong fell in the semi-final round to eventual winner, Gong Ruina, thus never gaining the title of a world champion.
Gong retired from the national team at age of 24 years old after the 2001 China Open held in September. She remained active to participate in the 9th National Games to be held in Guangzhou in November. At the National Games, she helped her native province of Hunan win the Women’s Team event as well as clinching in Women’s Singles in the individual competition.
She also participated at the following National Games in 2005. Gong helped Hunan win the women’s team competition but was unable to defend her Women’s Singles title in the individual competition. She fell in the quarterfinals to eventual winner, Jiang Yanjiao. The 2005 National Games would be the last tournament of her playing career. Gong turned down an offer from Li Yongbo to become a coach for the national team.
Between 2001 and 2005, Gong was the deputy director of the Hunan provincial badminton centre. Not focused on training anymore, Gong acted more in the capacity of a role model due to her achievements at the recent Olympics. Throughout her career, Gong had earned a reputation of being relentless in her training. Stories waxed eloquently about how she used to climb the 500-meter mountain with a gradient of over 50 degrees in only 18 minutes and how she added weight to her clothes to make the training harder.
In her personal life, Gong enjoys playing the piano. She has always been a fan of music and brought music by her favourite artists, Tan Yong Lin and Faye Wong, with her when travelling abroad. In her spare time, she also likes to do exercise, practice yoga and play tennis.
Gong Zhichao was inducted the BWF Hall of Fame in 2012.
INDIVIDUAL AWARDS (in order by year)
2012 – BWF Hall of Fame
BIBLIOGRAPHY & REFERENCES
1998 All England Official Programme
Badminton Handbook (Bernd-Volker Brahms)
Histoire du badminton (Jean-Yves Guillain)
International Badminton … the first 75 years (BWF)
World Badminton (Magazine)
-- By Yves Lacroix