Now for our first ever Olympic gold

THE Tokyo Olympic Games begin today after a one-year postponement due to the Covid-19 pandemic and there’s no better “vaccine” to cheer up the entire nation in these gloomy times than for our athletes to win Malaysia’s first ever Olympic gold medal.

The Malay phrase “Ini kali lah” (This time it is) inspires me as a veteran journalist to foretell that the Olympic gold medal, the world’s greatest and most prestigious prize in sports, and the most elusive one for Malaysia, is highly likely to be won this time around.

Let’s get straight to the point, Malaysia’s best hopes of winning an Olympic gold is always in badminton, the one sport that we have been a world power ever since the 1950’s.

We have produced so many badminton greats of world reckoning over the past six decades both in men’s singles and doubles.

In the 65 years since the country’s first participation in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Malaysia has won 11 medals – eight in badminton, two in diving and one in cycling.

This is a very modest medal haul in more than six decades, which shows that in many other sports Malaysia has yet to attain world-class status or produce world-beaters.

It’s been exponential financial commitments in sports by the government and corporate sponsors over the decades but of course the main objective is that sport is part and parcel of nation building to unite the people, not in winning medals per se.

But like in anything that involves big money, there must be expectations of return on investments and sport is no exception.

As someone who has followed passionately the goings-in badminton since I was a kid – and that was a very long time ago – I am putting a moneyless bet here on our badminton star Lee Zii Jia to end our 65-year-old Olympic gold medal drought in Tokyo.

Badminton begins just a day after the opening ceremony and plenty of action-packed matches are in store.

In the 23-year-old Zii Jia, we have our truly rising world star, who surprised the badminton world when he won the All-England title in March, beating players with much higher rankings than him.

Because Japan’s world No. 1 Kento Momota is playing in his home ground, he would start as the favourite for the gold or the formidable Viktor Axelsen of Denmark, but remember Lee has beaten them both at the All-England.

Badminton pundits would argue that it’s not only in winning the title that was quite amazing but in the style and almost impeccable manner he did it that earned him the “A new star is born” tagging as well in the media.

Malaysia previously had come so close to winning that first Olympic gold in the successive 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics but ended up in huge disappointments.

Datuk Lee Chong Wei was in action in those three back-to-back Olympics but lost twice to China’s Lin Dan and once to Chen Long.

The closest Malaysia ever came to winning the gold was in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro when Chong Wei beat his nemesis Lin Dan in the semi-final with China’s Chen Long standing in the way for the final. The entire nation waited passionately for that Ini kali lah moment to arrive but once again it wasn’t to be.

I would say it was the biggest disappointment in Malaysia’s sporting history because all badminton pundits would undeniably agree that Lin Dan during his reign before his recent retirement was the greatest player of his and previous few generations.

And our very own star had at last beaten him to be within a whisker of winning the gold.

Chong Wei, then ranked No. 1 for a prolonged period, himself explained his three successive Olympic failures in this way as reported in The Star yesterday: “All I remember in those three Olympics is the pressure that came with it. I was expected to win – and that put a lot of burden on my shoulder. I remember my difficulty sleeping before the finals”.

He added: “I came very close in Rio but I did not win the gold. I had beaten Lin Dan in the semi-finals but lost to his compatriot Chen Long in the final. That’s the only disappointment.”

I could still recall watching all those three finals where Chong Wei lost but my take is that he wore a very tired look in these appearances compared with the much fresher Lin Dan and Chen Long.

And it would not be too far-fetched for me to say that in any Olympic year, both Lin Dan and Chen Long were more sparing in the tournaments they competed in so that they were better prepared for the ultimate and consummate prize in world sports which is the topic of this column.

That’s the hallmark of champions, taking whatever pressure in their strides.

The true thoroughbred champion that he has been, it doesn’t matter two hoots to Lin Dan not being tagged as world No. 1 player, at times as he was gunning for the top two most prestigious honours in the game, the Olympic gold and the World Championship title.

He had consistently won both but never for Chong Wei, who in comparison competed in so many prior tournaments apparently to maintain his No. 1 ranking.

As for Zii Jia, fortunately there have been far less competitions thanks, ironically, to the pandemic and he is all raring to roll out his highly impressive style and the great form that won him the All-England.

The lanky Zii Jia’s play style and match temperament are much different from Chong Wei’s, but he has all the markings of a more awesome player even at this early stage of his career. Can he do it?

China’s shuttlers, who will be making a comeback to international badminton after an absence of more than a year due to Covid-19, once again are expected to pose the biggest hurdle.

So in more ways than one, given his great performance so far, the Olympic gold is Zii Jia’s to lose as all Malaysians wish him the very best in “injecting this vaccine” into our national psyche in these depressing times.