When Chen Long won the 2016 Rio Olympics gold medal, it corrected an anomaly in badminton. After eight years of utter domination by the legendary duo of Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei - they had won gold and silver, respectively, in the previous two editions - men’s singles got a new Olympic champion in Chen Long.
Before Chen, one had to travel back 12 long years for a first-time Olympic gold medallist - Taufik Hidayat of Indonesia at the 2004 Athens Games.
China’s Chen not only broke the duopoly of compatriot Lin and Malaysia’s Lee but effectively spoiled the latter’s eternal hope of winning an Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro. The then 27-year-old Chen defeated his decorated opponent in a gruelling summit clash that lasted an hour and fourteen minutes, displaying his incredible fitness levels. Lee finished with a third straight silver medal at the marquee event.
For Chen, it was an improvement from his bronze medal-winning show at the 2012 London Games. In his career that spanned more than a decade, he won one more Olympic medal, a silver at Tokyo Olympics in 2021, before moving into a semi-retirement life. He wanted to retire in front of his supporters at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou. However, he did not wish to stretch his career any longer when the event was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Already removed from the BWF rankings, the 34-year-old officially retired on Saturday in Suzhou in an event organised by the Chinese Badminton Association on the sidelines of the Sudirman Cup, leaving behind an enormous legacy that comprised a staggering two World Championships and one Asian Championships gold medals and 15 Super Series titles, including the All England Open - the holy grail of badminton.
Chen was also instrumental in China’s five Sudirman Cup victories (Guangzhou 2009, Qingdao 2011, Kuala Lumpur 2013, Dongguan 2015, and Nanjing 2019), three Thomas Cup (Kuala Lumpur 2010, Wuhan 2012 and Bangkok 2018), and two Asian Games team victories (Guangzhou 2010, and Jakarta-Palembang 2018).
But for all his achievements, Chen, who spent 76 successive weeks as world number one, could never come out of the shadow of his charismatic compatriot Lin Dan since he joined the Chinese national team in 2008.
In his own quiet and unassuming way, Chen also won a staggering 446 matches. Yet, he had to spend his whole career against the threat of the famed rivalry between Lin and Lee.
It is not that Chen was not a fierce competitor and did not share any rivalry with Lin and Lee. Known as the ‘Great Wall of China’ for his resolute defence and engaging opponents in exhaustive slower and longer rallies, Chen led 10-9 in the head-to-head record against Lin and trailed 13-14 against Lee in a testament to his calibre. In fact, both of Chen’s Worlds gold came against Lee (2014 and 2015). On both occasions, he won in straight games.
In the 2015 Malaysia Masters final, when he was up against Lin, Chen gave an account of his rich skill set by allowing no space to the then-Olympic champion for a turnaround- after losing the opening game 20-22. A defensive counter-puncher with speedy feet and excellent anticipation, Chen eventually trounced Lin 20-22, 21-13, 21-11.
Chen, a nimble-footed shuttler, had the ability to command the flow of the game with his remarkable court coverage, accelerating and decelerating between the front and backline, which gave him extra space to convert difficult chances into points.
Frustrated with his failure to beat Chen for a large part of his career, Lin Dan once famously said, “Playing against Chen Long is like playing against a wall.”
When Lee and Lin retired in 2019 and 2020, leaving a massive vacuum in men’s singles, Chen dominated emerging star Viktor Axelsen like anything, holding a massive 14-6 command in the head-to-head battle.
Despite his achievements, Chen did not receive as much attention as he should have as there was more focus on the Lin-Lee rivalry and Axelsen’s rise, who single-handedly broke the Asian hegemony in men’s singles in 2017 and stalled Chen’s Olympic title defence in Tokyo in 2021.
Chen has always been the game’s most understated player. He received little media attraction, despite winning Olympic and World Championships gold. Had his career not coincided with Lin and Lee, he would, of course, have been more celebrated and regarded as one of the greatest players ever to enlighten the game.
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