Some 57 years after Malaysia took part in its first Olympics, badminton remains its most successful sport at the Games, accounting for eight out of the 11 Olympic medals they have won thus far.
Six of these are silvers and two are bronzes.
Malaysia’s first Olympic medal could have happened in 1972 when the dynamic doubles duo of Punch Gunalan and Ng Boon Bee finished second.
They were a force to be reckoned with at the time, having stormed the world and clinched many prestigious international Men’s Doubles titles at the All England Open, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.
Unfortunately, badminton was only a demonstration sport at the 1972 Munich Olympics, so there were no official medals given out. Their accomplishment was not even recognised as a proper Olympic result.
It was only in 1992 that Malaysia finally got its first Olympic medal at the Barcelona Games in badminton, when badminton was introduced at the Olympics for the first time. Brothers Razif Sidek and Jalani Sidek took a bronze in the Men’s Doubles.
Then the 1996 Atlanta Olympics saw Malaysia bring back two medals in badminton – silver for the Men’s Doubles from Cheah Soon Kit and Yap Kim Hock, and bronze from Rashid Sidek in the Men’s Singles.
The reign of Lee Chong Wei
There was a bit of a drought for the next 12 years. Malaysia only earned its next Olympic medal at the 2008 Beijing Games when Lee Chong Wei reached the finals of the Men’s Singles – a first for the country that had had more success in doubles events up to that point. Lee lost to China’s Lin Dan in straight sets and had to settle for silver.
Every Malaysian would surely recall the excitement and anticipation of watching their national hero Lee come close to winning the elusive Olympic gold medal – not once, not twice, but three times.
Lee also made it to the finals of the Men’s Singles at the 2012 London Games and once again was up against Lin. He took the first game to lead the match but Lin managed to claw back the second set for a rubber game. Lin then edged out – very narrowly – a score of 21-19 to beat Lee.
The 2016 Rio Games looked a little more promising for Lee when he beat Lin in the semi-finals, but fell short of the gold when he lost by a small margin to China’s Chen Long in straight sets (18-21, 18-21).
At Rio, Malaysia also brought back silver in the Men’s Doubles of Goh V Shem and Tan Wee Kiong and also in the Mixed Doubles with Chan Peng Soon and Goh Liu Ying.
After three consecutive attempts at the Olympic gold, Lee bowed out of the sport professionally in 2019 after being diagnosed with nose cancer. He remains the Malaysian athlete with the most Olympic medals and is the present chef de mission of Malaysia for the upcoming Tokyo Games.
Another Lee rises
All eyes are now on Lee Zii Jia, Malaysia’s rising badminton star, who won the All England Open Men’s Singles in March earlier this year.
This result was a huge turnaround for the 23-year-old, as just two months before the All England final, he was given a show cause letter by the Badminton Association of Malaysia following poor performances at the Toyota Thailand Open and the Badminton World Federation World (BWF) Tour Finals. He was given the option of withdrawing from the All England Open after losing the Swiss Open semi-final in March.
Following the All England Open victory - a career best - people were quick to draw parallels between him and Chong Wei. At one point, the latter set the world record for being the top player in the BWF for 349 weeks in a row.
But the younger Lee wants to be known for his own abilities and not as a replacement for Lee Chong Wei. Young, hardworking, resilient – but still green – Lee Zii Jia shows promise for a good result in Tokyo if he keeps up his form and self-confidence.
And let’s not forget the other team members – Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik (Men’s Doubles), Soniia Cheah (Women’s Singles) and Chow Mei Kuan and Lee Meng Yeah (Women’s Doubles). Chan Peng Soon and Goh Liu Ying (Mixed Doubles) have also qualified to compete in the Men’s Singles, Men’s Doubles, Women’s Singles, Women’s Doubles and Mixed Doubles at Tokyo. Chan and Goh, who have been playing together for over a decade, won silver medals at Rio.
Regardless of their results, making it to Tokyo is a feat in itself, in light of all that is happening in their country and the world.