Born in Lishui, Zhejiang, China, Li Lingwei came into the world as a newborn weighing a mere 4 pounds on April 1, 1964. Worried about Li’s health, her mother encouraged her to participate in non-contact sports such as badminton but Li indiscriminately loved sports. During her childhood, Li impressed everyone with sporting results such as finishing in first place in the 400-meter run. In 1975, Li was invited to join the Zhejiang provincial badminton team. At that time, she was only 11 years old.
Five years later, Li won the Women’s Singles title in the 1980 National Youth Badminton Competition and the Women’s Doubles title in the adult competition. For her feats, Li was promoted to the national badminton team. It was in the national team that she learned both her renown physical and mental skills from coach, Chen Fushou.
Her timing could not have been more perfect. Her entry into the national team coincided with China’s decision to join the International Badminton Federation. This momentous decision opened up the world of international badminton to Chinese players. Li quickly made use of the opportunity and reached her first international final at 1981 Alba Quartz World Cup at the tender age of 17 years old.
After finishing 1981 with an international final, Li entered 1982 with a bang. She crushed Japan’s Fumiko Tookairin with the decisive scores of 11-2, 11-2 to win the Japan Open. Later that year, Li reached the finals at 2 major tournaments – one at the All England and the other at the Asian Games – but was defeated both times by her then-dominant compatriot, Zhang Ailing.
The year of 1983 would prove to be Li’s ‘World Year.’ In May, Li competed at the World Championships hosted by Copenhagen and was unfazed until the semi-final stage where she met Englishwoman and European Junior Champion, Helen Troke.
At the age of 17 years old, Troke was one year younger than Li but she was able to take the lead in the first game with her power and aggression. Li was down 10-8 to Troke when Li’s mental game kicked in. Li suddenly changed tactics and took over to win the first game 12-10. Li’s strategy of luring Troke to the net destabilized the young European’s footwork and paid off with an 11-6 score in the final and second game.
Li faced off Han Aiping in the final. Going into the match, Han Aiping was the favourite to win with already a World Badminton Federation World Championships title from 1979 under her belt. The players kept the crowd on the edge of their seats as the match for gold escalated into an epic three-game battle. After a long marathon, the 19-year old Li defeated Han Aiping with the scores of 11-8, 6-11, 11-7.
“It was a remarkable and unforgettable moment for me,” Li reminisced decades later. “It still is today, despite many years have passed. Not only was it my first title but it was the first after the two former federations – IBF and WBF – had joined together, creating a unity which helped the sport gain Olympic status. After the match, I couldn’t believe it was true. I hid in the rest room for moments after the match, not knowing what to do. Apparently, I made Queen Margrethe II wait after me.”
Following her milestone win in Denmark, Li took two more ‘worldly’ titles that year. She won the first title at the World Cup in Women’s Doubles with none other than Han Aiping. Then her second title came in December at the World Grand Prix Finals in Women’s Singles.
She continued on a roll in 1984 with no less than 4 titles in Singles, including the much coveted All England where Li once again triumphed over Han. The two would put aside their singles rivalry to join forces and win the Women’s Doubles title at next year’s All England. In 1984, Li led the pioneer Chinese team which won the Uber Cup for the first time. Li won all 5 matches that she was sent out to play. Li never lost a game and conceded a total of only 44 points. After the first initial win, Li helped China win two more consecutive Uber Cup titles before her retirement.
Li’s next World Championship title would come again in 1985. This time in Calgary, Canada, she took the Women’s Doubles title once again with Han. At the 1986 Asian Games, she exchanged courtesies with Han and took the silver in Women’s Singles.
By that time, Li already had a full subscription to the highest step of the podium of countless Grand Prix tournaments, such as the Indonesia Open, the China Open, and the Malaysia Open. Li added another 2 silvers to her impressive collection (Women’s Singles and Doubles with Han Aiping) from the 1987 World Championships held in Beijing.
In her swan year, 1989, Li won the Japan Open for the third time and the World Championships for the second and very last time in Women’s Singles. This World Championship title would be the last title of her career.
After retiring in 1989, Li entered the University of Hangzhou to transfer her skills from playing to coaching. In March 1991, she re-entered the Chinese national team as the coach of the women’s team. Under Li’s guidance, she led the Chinese women’s badminton team to another gold medal finish at the 1998 Uber Cup. Over the course of her coaching career, Li has cultivated top players such as Ye Zhaoying, Gong Zhichao, Gong Ruina and Dai Yun to follow in her footsteps.
In 2000, she went to the USA for one year to study English. After her studies in the USA, she continued with her education at the Beijing Sport University and became a Doctor of Humane and Sociological Science of Sport in June 2008.
Li has always been a strong advocate of women’s rights and has been heavily involved in improving women’s participation and fair representation in world sports bodies such as the BWF and the IOC. Li has stated that, “as women, we have to work harder because we have so many roles to play – mother, daughter or wife – so most of us are in a very challenging situation. We have to work harder than men, otherwise we can’t achieve our goals.” She believed that in comparison to other sports, “badminton is achieving a lot of positive goals, in women’s participation for example, and with equal prize money. And it is the same with participation at events. So on court badminton’s equality achievements are good. And personally speaking, as a female player from China, we have enjoyed more success than the boys!“
It was very natural that she became the Vice-Chair of the Women’s Commission of the BWF in 2009.
When asked about women’s declining presence in world sports bodies, Li stated that “it is not only in badminton that this has taken place but in other sports too. It is a worldwide, multi-sport, long-lasting task to increase and improve the roles of women.” Li has proved herself to be a true believer in leading by example as she is also a very active member of various national and international organizations.
Li became the Vice President of the Chinese Badminton Association (CBA) in 2001 and still holding the position to this day. A year later, she also was elected as a Council Member of the Badminton World Federation. Li has also been serving as the Deputy Chair of the International Relations Commission of the BWF from 2009 to this day.
Despite being heavily involved with multiple associations, Li still found the time to work as the Deputy Director in the International Relations Department for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games Organizing Committee (BOCOG) from 2003 to 2008.
Starting from 2004, she became a member of the Executive Committee of the Chinese Olympic Committee.
In 2006, she became a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Olympic Programme Commission. For her Olympic involvement, the IOC honored her with the Women and Sport Award in March 2008. It was very fitting that Li was a torch bearer at the 2008 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony.
After the Olympics, Li continued to develop the Olympic legacy by becoming a part of the Beijing Olympic City Development Association (BODA) in 2009. Six years later in 2012, she became an official member of the IOC.
In sports administration, she was the Deputy Director General at the Table Tennis and Badminton Administrative Center of General Administration of Sport of China from 2008 to 2010.
Starting in 2010, she became the Deputy Director General of the Tennis Administrative Center of General Administration of Sport of China.
With all of her hard work on and off the court, Li was more than worthy of receiving countless honors. Li won the national award for " Best Athlete" in 1980 and the " Best International Athlete" title in 1985.
She has also received the "Sports Medal of Honor" from the National Sports Commission seven times.
Li has been named within the “National Top 10 Athletes of the Year” in 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987. In 1989, Li was listed as one of China’s founding 40 years of outstanding athletes.
For her coaching contributions, Li was named one of the National “Top 10 Coaches of the Year” in 1997 and 1998.
The BWF awarded Li the IBF Distinguished Service Award in 1994 and inducted her into its Hall of Fame in 1998.
She also received Medals of Honor of the World Labor Day in China and of the Women’s Day in China.
1994 – IBF Distinguished Service Award
1998 – IBF Hall of Fame
BIBLIOGRAPHY & REFERENCES
Badminton Handbook (Bernd-Volker Brahms)
Encyclopaedia of Badminton (Pat Davis)
Guinness Book of Badminton (Pat Davis)
International Badminton – the first 75 years
-- By Yves Lacroix