Competing at an Olympic Games has been a life-long dream for many of them but their heads are far from ‘in the clouds’ about the task they face in the coming days as the Badminton Competition gets underway.
There is no easy way to the podium at the height of sport and across all five categories, many players have come to Rio 2016 knowing that to stand any chance of getting there – or even near there – they must confront the likes of badminton brand names such as Lin Dan, Carolina Marin, Lee Chong Wei and Lee Yong Dae.
Looking across the net at reigning gold medallists, Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei, could be nightmarish but Hong Kong’s Lee Chun Hei smiled and showed his sense of humour.
“At least we are not in a worse group. We are a bit lucky and we will try to play our best,” he declared.
He and Mixed Doubles partner, Chau Hoi Wah, have already beaten the prolific Chinese but, with Indonesia’s Praveen Jordan/Debby Susanto and experienced Germans, Michael Fuchs/Birgit Michels, in the mix, are well aware that downing the London 2012 champions will not be all it takes to advance from Group A.
“We have beaten all of them before but our overall head-to-heads are not good. We have been training hard and analysing our opponents, how to play them. They are all strong players and it is amazing to be in the Olympics with them.”
Austria’s David Obernosterer (featured photo) is under no illusions about the strength of the man against whom he will make his Olympic debut – two-time Men’s Singles winner, Lin Dan.
It is a daunting assignment but the 27-year-old is embracing the challenge of taking on the Chinese superstar on the prowl for an unprecedented Olympic hat-trick.
“To play him will be very hard but I am happy to be in my first Olympics. I played here in the Test Event last November. It is still a bit windy but I will try my best,” he said.
Soren Opti of Suriname was overjoyed at the news that he had been awarded a Tripartite place in Men’s Singles. However, the draw brought the 19-year-old back to earth quickly, landing him in Group A with top seed, Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia. While more seasoned, Brice Leverdez of France and Sri Lankan, Niluka Karunaratne, will have it tough too against Jan Jorgensen and Chen Long in their respective groups.
“I feel good. I am more mentally ready; more mature. My chances are still low but it’s not me who has the pressure. It’s Jan who is one of the favourites,” said 30-year-old Leverdez of his Danish rival.
Karunaratne has ambitions of surpassing his last-16 finish in London 2012 but to do so he must oust China’s reigning two-time World champion.
“If I can beat Chen Long, I think the quarter-final is possible. I have been playing some good matches and I want to do something special here in Rio,” stated the 31-year-old.
Rajiv Ouseph has been agonisingly close to big wins in the past and is determined to grasp his opportunity to progress to the knockout round this time. The No.13 seed has Sho Sasaki of Japan and fellow European, Petr Koukal of the Czech Republic, for company in Group I.
“This draw is a good chance for me to get to the last 16. I expect hard matches after all it’s the Olympics but I am excited to be here after a long year of qualifying and I’m going to give it my best shot,” said the British player in his second Olympic outing.
In Women’s Doubles, Britain’s Heather Olver and Lauren Smith, have found themselves surrounded by Asians – No.3 seeds Nitya Krishinda Maheswari/Greysia Polii (Indonesia); Poon Lok Yan/Tse Ying Suet (Hong Kong); and Vivian Hoo/Woon Khe Wei (Malaysia).
“We’re probably the underdogs in Group C but we have had close matches versus Hong Kong and Malaysia but we have never played the Indonesians,” said Olver in her first Olympics.
“We have had some good training and we are ready to go. I am excited to play here.”
The Stoeva sisters – Gabriela and Stefani – as well as Eva Lee and Paula Lynn Obanana (USA), are also Olympic newcomers hoping to make a mark as women’s pairs. The Bulgarian siblings tackle No.2 seeds Tang Yuanting/Yu Yang (China), Chang Ye Na/Lee So Hee (Korea) and Johanna Goliszewski/Carla Nelte (Germany) in Group D while the Americans will battle Jung Kyung Eun/Shin Seung Chan (Korea), Christinna Pedersen/Kamilla Rytter Juhl (Denmark) and Luo twins, Ying and Yu in Group B.
“We are looking forward to competing in our first Olympics and showing what we can do. We have China, Korea and Germany – but we think we have a chance. We have been getting more experience and we hope to do well on court,” said younger sister, Stefani.
Meanwhile, Lee and Obanana, called their road to Rio “a six-year journey” from their qualification quest for London 2012 – which they missed out on – to the four years which will culminate when they step on court inside Riocentro – Pavilion 4.
“Everyone says we are in the strongest group so we are prepared for some tough, physical battles. Our new physical trainer has helped us a lot,” said Lee who turned 30 on Sunday.
On Thursday, Telma Santos steps on court versus Women’s Singles Olympic champion, Li Xuerui of China. Also awaiting the Portuguese player in Group E are Iris Wang of the USA and Belgium’s Lianne Tan.
“I am happy. This is my second Olympics so I get a second chance to live my dream and it’s a pleasure to play one of the best. Let’s see if I can have a good match,” declared the 33-year-old who spent the past month training in Brazil.
One year younger, Nadiezda Zieba, will compete in her third Olympics and she expects the going to be rough for her and Mixed Doubles partner Robert Mateusiak. They are in the so-called ‘group of death’.
“Our draw is very tough,” acknowledged the Polish veteran, sighing with a wry smile.
“The Chinese (Xu Chen/Ma Jin), the Danes (Joachim Fischer Nielsen/Christinna Pedersen) and the Adcocks but it is the Olympics and anything can happen. We will try our best. That is all we can do.”
Yes, these are the Olympic Games and everyone is ready to do just that – bring their best.