LONDON – When it was over and the gold was won, the bad boy of badminton ran around Wembley Arena. In a building that once hosted The Who and the Rolling Stones, China's Lin Dan ripped off his shirt and made like Mick Jagger, balling the shirt in his hand and heaving it into the crowd.
Then he raised his hands, pointed No. 1s to the roof and shouted into the roar.
Missing were flames shooting from his fingers.
Left on the court behind him, Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei lay flat. He was two points short of the gold medal his country has never won in any sport. His face glistened with tears. His lips quivered. His eyes stared at nothing.
"Never mind, you just tried your best," one of his coaches, Rashid Sidek, whispered in his ear.
But the words were empty in the din that fell upon Lin. Malaysia had dumped its athletic dreams on Chong Wei. Gold was the only option. Silver was a defeat. Chong Wei knew it. So did the hundreds of Malaysian fans who quietly pulled down posters reading: "The gold mission for the whole nation" and "Do it for No. 1." They were already shuffling out of the arena and into the afternoon.
In a sport that has become the punchline of these Olympics, scorned for the women's doubles players who tried to lose their matches, the emotion in the men's singles final on Sunday was very real. Minutes after the final, both Lin and Chong Wei were weeping. One cried for joy, the other for lament. And somehow it seemed this is what the Olympics are supposed to be about.
Lin is badminton's best player. Chong Wei is the game's second. They say they are good friends but they are also bitter rivals. Whenever they meet in the finals of every important badminton tournament Lin always wins. The biggest of those wins came in the 2008 Beijing Olympics when Lin beat Chong Wei in two sets, another in last year's World Championships when Chong Wei was a point away from defeating Lin only to lose.
"Lin is a fantastic player," Chong Wei said, adding that he can usually beat almost every player in the world, "but it becomes an issue when I play with Lin because he is such a fantastic player."
They are really nothing alike.
Chong Wei broods. He looks tormented. He walks as if he carries the burdens of his country on his slender shoulders.
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Dan preens. He became "the bad boy of badminton" years ago when stories of his flamboyant behavior began flying about. In a sport of clean-cut athletes, his arms sport tattoos: a star on one shoulder and a cross on the other. The latter, he said, represents his Christian grandmother who prays before his matches. He has tussled with opponents, once famously raising his racquet at a South Korean coach, leaving everybody to fear he was going to smash the man over the head.
Before the Beijing Games, several Chinese journalists said they saw Lin punch his coach, Ji Xinpeng. Lin denied the punch, but it has become a part of his legacy, adding to a tale that has made him a giant in his homeland. In China, the only male athlete bigger than Lin is Yao Ming.
Early in Sunday's match, Lin looked overwhelmed. He waved feebly at Chong Wei's shots, knocking several returns into the net. He mumbled to himself. He kicked at the ground. He smacked himself in the forehead. But after losing the first set 21-15, he stormed back to win the second 21-10, setting up an epic third.
After fighting for several minutes, Lin and Chong Wei were tied at 19. Lin skipped in place. Chong Wei glared straight ahead. The Malaysian fans waved their red-and-white striped flags and chanted Chong Wei's name. They pleaded with him. Two more points.
He wouldn't get them. Lin got there first. And when he did, he began his run about Wembley. He shouted. He whooped. He pumped his fists. Chong Wei finally rose from the court and sulked to his racquet bag. Lin raced over to embrace him, but it was a one-sided hug. Chong Wei's arms dangled like spaghetti. He has suffered so much.
Nearly three months ago he injured ligaments in his right ankle. There was a concern he wouldn't be able to play in these Olympics. He cried when he first heard how badly he was hurt. But he made it here because of a secret training regimen that turned out to be a stem cell treatment. Still, he never seemed comfortable in London.
When Chong Wei nearly lost his first-round match to an unknown from Finland, his coach said the pressure back home had become too much.
"He can not lose," Tey Seu Bock said. "He has to win."
Then on Sunday, Chong Wei lost to Lin again.
They were such a contrast as they prepared to get their medals. Chong Wei stumbled onto the platform and weakly bent his head to accept his silver, ironically presented by a Malaysian official. Many of the Malaysian fans had already left the arena. There was no one to cheer Chong Wei. When Lin was called, he threw his arms out wide as if to scream, "Look at me!" He took the traditional bouquet, then snapped a salute at the rising Chinese flag. When the anthem was over, he threw his flowers into the stands. Chong Wei slumped off the medal stand.
Later Chong Wei would say he was done chasing Olympic gold. The elusive medal will have to be somebody else's burden now.
Meanwhile, Lin Dan, the bad boy of badminton, basked in his gold. He sat in a press conference, as straight and confident as Chong Wei was drooped and broken.
"Let me make a joke," he said, explaining that when the match was 19-19, he "quietly wished Lee Chong Wei would make a mistake."
"But that's a joke," he added.
Sitting beside him. Lee Chong Wei didn't laugh. On the day the bad boy of badminton won himself another gold, Chong Wei was going home with a silver. This will not be seen as a success in the country that badly wants a gold.
Nobody understood that more than Chong Wei. He looked at his silver medal with the same disregard that his country would appraise it.
Second again to the bad boy of badminton was the same thing as failure.
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