The John McEnroe of badminton
BEIJING --There is an international truism when it comes to bad boys: Girls love them -- even the ones who play badminton.
Around these parts, Lin Dan has been tagged as the Bad Boy of Badminton. He is a full-fledged Chinese sporting idol, a handsome and charismatic 24-year-old who has dominated his sport over the last four years, winning two world titles along with the hearts of young Chinese women across the nation.
The shuttlecock king of Asia has drawn international attention, with some even projecting that his pull could expand the sport in other countries. Earlier this month the Guardian (U.K.) Newspaper offered the following proclamation: "Brilliant, volatile and glamorous, China's Lin Dan could be the man to bring badminton to the masses."
We'll bet those masses will never include America, but watching Dan in person, along with 7,500 others at Beijing University Institute of Technology Sunday night, it's easy to see why the man called "Super Dan" is the man in badminton. Lin is a one-man circus. He stalks across the court during matches, pumps his fist after points as if he were Jimmy Connors, and offers a back story that feels more at home in Roger Goodell's NFL. Last January, Lin had a public spat with South Korea's coach Li Mao during the final of the Korea Super Series in Seoul. He threatened to use his racket on Li, who called him "rude" and "immoral" and the "most ill-cultivated player" he had seen. Then in April, Chinese media reported that Lin punched his coach, Ji Xinpeng, during a pre-Olympic training camp. Writers called for Lin to be dropped from the national team. He apologized but denied he hit anyone. Lin has also had some famous public spats with the Athens champion Taufik Hidayat of Indonesia. It has been written before: Lin Dan is Chinese for John McEnroe.
Then there is this: Along with his talent and temper, Lin dates the world's No. 1 female badminton player, Xie Xingfang, who won a silver medal in singles. About the only thing missing from his resume was an Olympic gold medal. And on Sunday night, inside the most raucous badminton stadium in the free and not-so-free world, Lin got his gold. His 21-12, 21-8 victory over Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia (the No. 2 player in the world) in the men's singles final was a 41-minute rout. Lin never trailed in the match and led 18-4 at one point of the final game. The average rally was 14 seconds.
After championship point, Lin fell to the ground, a la Andre Agassi at Wimbledon, and flapped his arms, as if he was creating an angel in the snow. Then he leapt to his feet, and tossed his racket into the crowd. But that was just the start. Lin slowly removed his left sneaker and hurled it into the upper deck. Then he tossed the right sneaker into the crowd. Finally, he pulled something out of the Agassi playbook: He gave a military salute to each section. A group of young Chinese women working for the Olympic News Service, who watched the match in the upper deck along with the press, did not hide their affiliation. With every point by Lin, they increased the intensity of their fist shaking. And they were not alone. Throughout the match, the crowd roared for nearly everything Lin did, chanting "Come on, China" in Chinese before every point.
Lin flamed out at the Athens Olympics, a No. 1 seed who fell in the first round of the tournament. In Beijing, he wore a small golden pin on his uniform bearing a likeness of Chairman Mao Zedong, the founder of communist China. The badminton star said he visited Mao's hometown before the Athens Games when the team was training in the Hunan Province. "We visited Mao's hometown and [Athens gold medalist] Zhang Nin bought cigarettes and alcohol as an offering to pray in front of his old house while I played cards," said Lin.
This year, he showed more reverence. "Zhang won gold and I lost in the first round so this year we went to Hunan again and I bought the alcohol and prayed in front of the tomb," Lin said. "I think Chairman Mao gave me the power."
Badminton is a huge deal in China. The Chinese won seven medals during these Games to increase its total to 29 since the sport was first introduced in the '92 Games. They have won 11 out of the 24 golds awarded. Watching the sport live at its highest level gives you an appreciation for the footwork and superb hand-eye coordination of the athletes. The sport is all about angles, guile and instant aggression. Lin's signature shot is the jump smash and the crowd roared every time he left his feet to slam the shuttlecock with his left hand. Lin waited until seemingly the last possible second to hit some shots. He was as deft as a magician.