Uncertain future for our badminton

AS our athletes grab one gold medal after another in the SEA Games, there's bad news for Malaysia on the badminton front half a world away.

Datuk Lee Chong Wei, who has graced the international badminton circuit for over a decade as Malaysia's only singles world beater, crashed out in the very first round of the World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland.

Chong Wei had chosen Glasgow instead of staying put in Kuala Lumpur for the SEA Games in the hope of winning his first ever World Championship title after so many failed attempts despite being tagged as World No. 1 player until he lost it recently.

Of course he had his priority right instead of chasing an almost certain SEA Games gold medal but look at what happened at Glasgow.

Chong Wei was beaten not by his traditional nemesis from China, Lin Dan or Chen Long, but by a player unknown to Malaysians – Brice Leverdez. This French player beat him in three sets, the second time in a row that he had eclipsed the legend who has been our greatest ever badminton ambassador.

In more ways than one, Chong Wei's latest failure speaks volumes of the state of Malaysian badminton.

He has been our standard bearer in what I regard as our truly No. 1 sport. Badminton has been the earliest sport for which the then Malaya and later Malaysia first began to carve a name for itself on the world scene since the 1950s.

Our over-dependence on Chong Wei to sustain Malaysia's world badminton image is all too glaring.

And due to the pressure, he has failed to win the two most important titles in the life of a badminton player – the Olympic gold medal and the World Championships.

In the meantime, age is fast catching up on him at this late stage of his illustrious career. Already he's the oldest player on the world circuit and in two months, he'll be 35.

In a very physically punishing sport like badminton, Chong Wei is well past his time or prime and which is why in a post-match press conference at Glasgow, he revealed his future plan.

"I might retire tomorrow. I want to try one more Olympics if I still have the fire in me. If I don't have the fire, maybe tomorrow I will announce that I will retire," said Chong Wei in giving the clearest indication so far on when he will hang his racquet up for good.

One more Olympics? Well, he must be saying it in jest because if a player of his pedigree and age could not win the elusive first gold medal when he was younger, there is no way – or as the headlines in sports pages of newspapers would say "no Wei" that he will be able to achieve it since the next Olympics is three years away.

And with it goes Malaysia's dream of winning its first ever Olympic gold given the notion that realistically, our only chance of landing that gold can only come from badminton.

Let's now talk about our failure to groom or produce another Chong Wei all these years. In China for instance, there's a string of players who are ready to fill in the shoes of Lin Dan should he call it quits.

Where did we go wrong?

To me, the most authoritative person to talk about this is Tan Sri Elyas Omar, the former Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) president, under whose leadership Malaysia in 1992 won the Thomas Cup, the symbol of world team badminton supremacy.

And for the record, we have not been able to repeat the success ever since, or for 25 long years to be exact.

"This is because since then, the BAM has failed to develop a winning team. It's not just a particular singles player we are talking about but a complete team. I developed such a team in six years during my time," he told me.

He recalled that the government gave BAM a six-acre piece of land at Taman Maluri in Kuala Lumpur on which he set up a badminton academy with 10 courts in a joint-venture with the Garden International School and MBf, the finance company.

"It was a successful project and we even created another MBF or Malaysian Badminton Foundation to financially sustain the academy," Elyas said. "But it was ... (replaced) in favour of the plan by the then BAM patron to create 1,000 badminton courts throughout the country.

"You know what happened? The so-called 1,000-court plan ended up with zeros only without the figure '1' and this is why we are in this situation today. We have paid a heavy price for killing the academy that I created," said Elyas, otherwise noted for being the best mayor Kuala Lumpur ever had.

While giving Chong Wei due credit and tribute for being arguably Malaysia's greatest athlete and Olympian – with three Olympic silver medals – Elyas said the signs are on the wall that he has reached his limit.

"This is a good time for him to retire although we don't have a player who can fill the void that he will leave behind," he said.

On Tuesday, when Chong Wei was beaten at Glasgow I texted a note to the new BAM president, Datuk Seri Norza Zakaria. Norza replied: "He has passed his prime. Time to move on."

To which my response was: "I expect your time as president as not exciting because we have no more world beaters after Chong Wei. Long way to go." Norza said: "Will work on it. I just took over three months."

I am normally an optimist but as someone who has closely followed badminton for at least 50 years from the time I was a kid, with Chong Wei's expected exit, I would say there's not much that we can look forward to as a world-class badminton nation.

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