As far as the Olympic Games was concerned, Lee and Lin were very much wet behind the ears – both crashed out early on debut at Athens 2004.
Beijing 2008 was the stage to prove their mettle, and prove it they did. Lin cruised to the final without dropping a single game while Lee was only stretched to three games in the last four by Korean Lee Hyun-il.
On 17 August, the Beijing University of Technology Gymnasium witnessed the first ever Olympic duel between the legends. The head-to-head record was evenly poised, with Lin leading 9-5. The last six meetings however, ended three apiece.
The final, disappointingly for neutrals, ended anti-climactic.
Roared on by the 5,000-strong vociferous home crowd, Lin was more aggressive than usual, punishing a shell-shocked Lee with one hit after another. The then 24-year-old set the tone early with his constant attacks. In the second game, he led 11-1 at one point.
The Chinese star only allowed his opponent 20 points across two games as he emerged emphatically triumphant 21–12, 21–8.
Lee was gracious in accepting Lin’s supremacy on the day.
“I have no excuse. He just played better,” said the 25-year-old.
For Lin, the display was unparalleled at that time.
“Best match of my entire career, my whole life,” he exclaimed.
“I’ve waited four years for this gold. Playing in China, my motherland, I was feeling a lot of pressure and couldn’t sleep. I didn’t expect to win like this. It’s a wonderful feeling to have won here.”
As soon as the winning point was secured, an emotional Lin, in sheer ecstasy, sprang into the air like the proverbial salmon.
He later said: “I hadn’t planned on how to celebrate, I just let it go.”
Lee on the other hand, perhaps overawed by the occasion, only exhibited his skills fleetingly and was unable to put on his renowned assured showing.
But it was probably the biggest learning experience for a youngster who went on to be world No.1 for 199 consecutive weeks (21 August 2008 to 14 June 2012), winning 28 titles in that space.
He retired a badminton icon in 2019 but it could be argued that that chastening experience in 2008 made Lee the player he was.
Lin would add two world titles (2009 and 2011) before the pair renewed their Olympic rivalry at London 2012.