Correction – Please see amended timelines for when Lee Chong Wei’s protected ranking expires.
Many have shed a tear when watching an Olympic triumph beyond belief. That moment ultimately transcends the sport itself and makes the Olympics what it is today.
Take German Matthias Steiner’s emotional victory in weightlifting at Beijing 2008 just a few months after his wife died in a tragic car accident. There was not a dry eye in the house.
Badminton could have its own tear-jerker of a moment in Tokyo 2020 if Malaysian legend Lee Chong Wei is to defy all odds and qualify for his fifth Olympics – a feat which in itself would be amazing.
Lee has amassed 705 wins, including 69 international titles in a stellar career spanning some 17 years.
In his prime, Lee was ranked world No.1 for 199 consecutive weeks from 21 August 2008 to 14 June 2012 and has the unenviable record of claiming three consecutive Olympic silver medals – 2008, 2012, 2016 – to make him one of the greatest badminton players of all time.
But since reaching the semifinals of the Indonesia Open last year, the 37-year-old Malaysian has not played in any tournament – instead undergoing two months of chemotherapy and phototherapy in Taiwan in his now well-documented fight with nose cancer.
Some had suggested this would send him into early retirement, but in a remarkable turnaround of events, Lee revealed in a press conference last November that he was in remission.
“I burst into tears when I was told I had cancer,” he told media in Kuala Lumpur. “I still love badminton, that’s why I’m not ready to hang up my racket yet.
“But I will take my time before coming back to the court. I’m waiting for the green light from the doctor.
“I still want to go to Tokyo. Qualifying for my fifth Olympics will not be an issue,” he said at the time.
It would indeed be a comeback for the ages.
And it’s that anomaly of three Olympic silvers that has he and a nation of adoring Malaysian badminton fans clinging onto hope that Olympic miracles do happen.
In the history of the Olympics, only one other athlete has won three consecutive silver medals in an individual Olympic event, before returning on a fourth occasion to shake the bridesmaid tag and capture the elusive gold.
That was Hungarian wrestler Imre Polyák who finally won gold at Tokyo 1964.
With the Olympics returning to Tokyo some 56 years later, could that be the calling card the enigmatic Malaysian is looking for? What a script that would be!
Lee’s history at the Olympics is one of near misses. His old adversary, China’s Lin Dan, had his measure in Beijing 2008 and London 2012. And while he finally broke that hoodoo in the semifinal of Rio 2016, he then succumbed to another Chinese in Chen Long to keep Malaysia waiting another four years for that elusive Olympic gold.
A photo of the three legends taken at the CELCOM AXIATA Malaysia Open 2019 two weeks ago is a reminder of their high regard. Lin Dan and Chen Long had just played out one of the matches of the year – and if their three-game epic had not liberated fans enough, the sight of Lee alongside them on the podium was a sight for saw eyes.
It was a reminder that these elder statesmen of badminton have no intention of going quietly into the night.
But as we sit in anticipation waiting for Lee’s return, there is one cloud hanging over his journey to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Will he get enough ranking points?
Having twice been forced to put his much-awaited comeback on hold at the All England Open and Malaysia Open, he now faces an uphill battle to qualify.
Despite having a protected ranking designated to him by the Badminton World Federation (BWF), he would need to return to the court and play at a BWF sanctioned tournament by 14 August 2019 in order for that to take effect.
Currently ranked No.77 in the world, Lee is expected to drop outside the world’s top 100 by the end of the month with the Malaysian set to miss the Badminton Asia Championships and likely the first tournament of the Olympic qualifying period (starting 29 April) – the BARFOOT & THOMPSON New Zealand Open 2019.
With his position in Malaysia’s Sudirman Cup team also uncertain, it’s likely he won’t make his comeback until the CROWN GROUP Australian Open 2019 or later.
On the plus side, once he does return, his ranking is guaranteed to be protected for a maximum six months. That means if he returns at the TOYOTA Thailand Open 2019 in early August, his ranking would still be protected until February next year.
Unfortunately, though, if he misses the 14 August 2019 cut-off date, his protect ranking status is void. And given that only the top 10 tournament results over the one-year qualifying period count, and that a maximum two players (or pairs) from each nation qualify, it makes it a tough ask.
But then again, as we have seen before, anything in sport is possible. Even old Imre Polyák will be cheering!