Lee Chong Wei: He Dared, He Won by Dominic Bliss

When he was a kid, Lee Chong Wei’s father once threatened to break his son’s legs. The youngster loved playing basketball, so much so that he worked up a deep tan from many hours on the basketball court under the hot Malaysian sun.

Lee senior (Lee Ah Chai) was angry about his son’s dark skin – seen in Oriental countries as a shameful sign that you’re a poor farm-worker. “If you play basketball again, I will break you legs!” he told his youngest child. And apparently he meant it.

Despite the cruel comment, Chong Wei’s father was inadvertently directing his son into a sport and a career that would eventually make him a millionaire and a superstar across Asia. Banned from basketball, the youngster was encouraged to play badminton instead where the indoor courts meant his skin wouldn’t tan.

Chong Wei was first introduced to badminton through his older brothers, Chong Hoon and Chong Eng, and his sister, Mei Ching. He was very much the baby of the family, born long after his siblings. In his biography he remembers picking up shuttles in the family’s front yard at their home in Bukit Mertajam, 180 miles north of the Malasian capital, Kuala Lumpur.

“Their rackets were cheap and poorly made of plastic, available at the toys’ section in any department store,” he writes. “But they had a lot of fun with them. No matter how many times I begged, no one would let me play. I was too short and didn’t have enough strength to join them. It was not fun to play with me, they said. I could only run around, chasing the swinging shuttlecock from side to side, back and forth. When it dropped on the ground I would pick it up willingly for them.”

Chong Lei had a very humble upbringing. His father worked delivering fish, his mother worked at home packing small factory products. All three of his elder siblings had part-time jobs after school, and once they’d finished their shifts would often work late into the night, helping their mother with her packing job.

In fact, the Lee family was so poor that, when Chong Wei was born, friends and family encouraged his parents to put him up for adoption.

“My arrival was going to bring hardship to our family,” Chong Wei writes. “I was going to be a burden to them even more. Friends and relatives were concerned about us and they suggested Mom and Dad consider giving me away. Giving child[ren] away was very common and morally acceptable in the past. It wasn’t new but Mom disagreed to give away her own flesh and blood. She said that she would never do that no matter how hard life was going to be.”

As a youngster, Chong Wei’s badminton skills were so obvious that he soon came to the attention of local coach Teh Eng Huat and trained at Berapit Primary School for six years. He struggled with the strict training programme and would often find ways to bunk off training runs. One trick was to hide out at the sweet shop while the other kids went running. Then, just as they were arriving back from their exercise, he would splash water on his face and T-shirt so that the coach thought he’d sweated his way round like the others.

With his parents at work and his siblings earning money after school, Chong Wei spent many afternoons home alone. Bored and desperate to play badminton, he invented a game where he would throw the shuttlecock against the living room wall and leap about, catching the resulting ricochets. He spent hours at it, fine-tuning his reactions. It would serve him well when he eventually became a professional player.

Chong Wei’s next step on the ladder to a sporting career came when he won a place at the National Sports College in Kuala Lumpur. The regime there was relentless, with morning training from 5am to 6.45am, academic classes from 7.30am to 3pm, and afternoon training until 6.30pm.

Chong Wei went to bed exhausted at 10pm every evening. He particularly struggled with the weight training demanded of him. “It was something totally new to me,” he writes. “I looked clumsy and awkward, and worst of all, sometimes I was mocked and teased by my teammates. It was demoralizing.”

He suffered terribly from homesickness. “Sometimes I got back to my room, I wept uncontrollably. I had no one to talk to. I felt helpless and lost.”

In the evenings he would call his father and “cry over and over again”. Lee senior persuaded him to persevere. Chong Wei threw himself into his training, doing extra practice every spare minute of the day.

“Even until my hands were blistered, in pain. Blisters tuned into callus[es]. My hands were sore, but I bore with it.”

It was at the National Sports College that Chong Wei met his future wife, Wong Mew Choo, also a professional
badminton player. The two teenagers carried on a secret relationship because they knew Mew Choo’s parents would vehemently disapprove. They would have secret trysts in the stairwell of their school apartment block. Mew Choo’s older sister, Miew Kheng, was also a student at the National Sports College and a chaperone for her sibling. “We could not let her know about our relationship,” Chong Wei remembers in his biography. “Every time we heard someone approaching, we would quickly walk away separately.”

Even when they sneaked out for dinner together, Mew Choo would get into a panic any time she saw a car that looked like her father’s. “Therefore our dates were not very relaxing but adventurous,” Chong Wei writes. “We both found it exciting.”

Big sister eventually found out what was going on and Mew Choo’s parents demanded the two lovers stop seeing each other. But they carried on dating in secret and it wasn’t until 2003, when Mew Choo became national champion, that her parents finally relented and sanctioned their affair.

The couple got married in November last year with a 1,500-guest wedding reception that had the nation’s biggest names in attendance. It was the Malaysian equivalent of Wills and Kate, proof of what a massive star Chong Wei has become. The King and Queen of Malaysia were there, as was the prime minister, plus many other politicians and celebrities. The couple are expecting their first baby later this year.

But back at the start of their relationship, there was a long road to travel before international stardom. Chong Wei found himself under the guidance of coach and former top player Mohmed Misbun Sedek. He remembers how, during one tough session with his coach, he lost his temper. “I was very frustrated with myself for losing a point so I [vented] my anger on the racket by throwing it hard onto the ground. It broke in two. It annoyed Coach Misbun. ‘From now on, you are not allowed to attend any training for a week!’ he yelled. For a week I was picking up the shuttles for my teammates.”

The punishment taught Chong Wei a valuable lesson in anger management.

At the age of 18, in 2000, Chong Wei embarked on the professional tour. His rise was fairly rapid with victory in several key BWF tournaments. By 2004 he was strong enough among his Malaysian peers to qualify for his first Olympic Games where he reached the round of 16. By 2006 he had won gold medal at the Commonwealth Games and had reached No.1 in the world.

As he stresses in his biography, like many top shuttlers, he became obsessed about winning gold at the Olympics. He came close twice. In London, last year, he won silver. At the 2008 Games, in Beijing, where he also won silver, he suggests that the Chinese authorities may have tried to throw him off his stride by subjecting him to excessive anti-doping tests.

“During the entire Game[s], I had to do the test 5 times in total,” he writes. “I felt uncomfortable and began to suspect conspiracy. Even the workers at the test centre recognized me and said I had become their regular guest.”

Chong Wei berates himself over his failure to win gold in Beijing. You can tell this is a man who demands superhuman effort and superhuman results. The latter stages of his biography see him wrestling psychologically over what he sees as his failure in badminton’s greatest competition.

Finally he seems to accept second place. “Everything that we do, we do it to win,” he concludes. “If we dare to win, we should also dare to lose.”

The English-language publication of Lee Chong Wei's autobiography, Dare To Win, provides a rare glimpse into the off-court life of a professional shuttler.