Three cheers for Chong Wei and former badminton greats

So, Lee Chong Wei has called it a day. I can only repeat what others have said: it’s a great loss to the nation and the badminton world.

For 19 long years Malaysians floated with his victories, or sunk into sadness with his defeats, in the many international championships that he played in. His talent and grit kept Malaysia on the sports map for almost two decades.

His achievements are considerable. He was named the Badminton World Federation’s best player five times and national sportsman four times. For 349 weeks, including a 199-week streak from 2008 to 2012, he was the world’s number one ranked player. He won the Olympic silver thrice.

But there is an end to everything. He fought hard against the nose cancer that afflicted him, just as he played with determination on the badminton courts. “It was a very heavy decision for me because I really love this sport, but the important thing now is my health,” he told a press conference on June 13.

His teary announcement brought back memories of the times – yes times – when I carried a badminton racket.

Every time the greats of the sixties and seventies played in international tournaments and won, every other youngster in my neighbourhood would be excitedly playing the game in the evenings. Even women in my neighbourhood would play among themselves, in the open air or on the road, without nets.

But our enthusiasm would wax with the triumphs of the national team and wane during periods of non-competition.

It was similar to World Cup football fever. In fact, I do believe Thomas Cup fever and All-England Badminton Championships fever overpowered World Cup fever in earlier years.

For instance, there was feverish celebration when Malaysia beat Indonesia 6-3 in the 1967 Thomas Cup. The names of players such as team captain Teh Kew San, Ng Boon Bee, Tan Aik Huang, Tan Yee Khan and Yew Cheng Hoe were on almost everyone’s lips.

My friends and I, in our primary school years, played with a plastic shuttle before picking up and using the shuttlecocks discarded by the adults. We’d serve and smash with these even though, because of the missing feathers, they would not always fly in the direction we intended.

Later, when we were older, we managed to pool our resources to buy a tube or two of shuttlecocks.

There were many would-be Aik Huangs and Punch Gunalans in my neighbourhood when it came to singles matches; in the doubles, everyone wanted to be the Boon Bee-Gunalan pair.

Boon Bee and Gunalan are, arguably, the best doubles pair Malaysia has ever produced. Certainly, they were the world’s top pair between 1970 and 1972, winning the prestigious All England, and leaving their rivals devastated in tournaments such as the Commonwealth, Asian, Danish, Canadian and US championships.

There are those who still talk about the All England finals of 1971 when Boon Bee and Gunalan beat the top Indonesian pair of Rudy Hartono and Indra Gunawan 15-5, 15-3.

Badminton enthusiasts of today would have heard of Hartono, a legend who won the All England eight times. Some other names I can recall are Hartono’s teammate Liem Swie King, and Svend Pri and Erland Kops of Denmark. Kops won the All England singles title seven times.

Later local greats included Misbun Sidek and his brothers Razif, Jailani and Rashid. They, and players such as Cheah Soon Kit and Yap Kim Hock, played their hearts out to bring glory to the nation.

International greats of the eighties included Morten Frost Hansen of Denmark, Yang Yang of China and Prakash Padukone of India.

Frost won the All England four times in the eighties, Yang Yang won the singles title in the World Badminton Championships in 1987 and 1989, while Prakash took the All England singles title after beating Swie King in 1980.

And yes, Bollywood actress Deepika is Prakash’s daughter.

Badminton as we know it, began in India with a game called poona, although people in China and Greece had been playing some versions of it, but without a net. The British introduced the net in India and imported the game, as they did spices and curry, to England.

The game took hold in Malaya in the 1900s. By the 1930s, there were many groups of Malayans playing the game. Curiously, they did not call themselves clubs but parties.

These badminton parties, or BP for short, had colourful names such as Hottentot BP, Evergreen BP, Horlicks BP, Marigold BP, Posto BP, Sunnydale BP, Gentle BP, Useful BP and Why Worry BP. In fact, right until the 1970s, there were some groups that continued to call themselves badminton party, such as Sri Kopee BP of Johor Bahru, which was mostly made up of civil servants.

Many of the early great players found their feet by playing for these BPs or in tournaments organised by the BPs. The legendary Wong Peng Soon, for instance, won the singles title in a tournament organised by Mayflower BP in 1948.

The following year, he led the Malayan team that won the inaugural Thomas Cup by beating Denmark 8-1. Wong, Ong Poh Lim and Law Teik Hock were among the players who blazed the trail for others, such as Eddy Choong and Teh Kew San, to follow.

Wong won the All England title four times from 1950. He was also in the team that won the Thomas Cup in 1952 and 1955.

The nation went on to win the cup another four times – in 1952, 1955, 1967 and 1992.

In the early years, there was hardly any government support for the players. They virtually had to fend for themselves, using their own money or seeking financial assistance from family members and friends. Wong, for instance, had to get assistance from his employer and family members to finance his trips for the All England games in 1951 and 1952.

Often, some good-spirited philanthropist, such as K Thamboosamy Pillai who donated the Thamboosamy Cup in the 1930s, would help give the game a boost.

Today’s top players are a lucky lot as the government provides almost all their sporting needs. And they also get rewarded handsomely if they win.

Apart from the likes of Wong, Aik Huang, Choong, Boon Bee, Gunalan and Misbun , there have been many others – such as Abdullah Piruz, Tan Aik Mong, David Choong, Abdul Rahman Mohamed and Sylvia Ng – who played important roles in the nation’s badminton history.

In saying thanks to Lee, we should also remember the immense contributions of these badminton stalwarts. They deserve our praise; and they deserve to be remembered. That’s the least we can do for them.

A. Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT.

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.