Gold eludes Malaysian shuttler Lee again
Malaysia's Lee fails to scale Olympic summit for a third successive time
REPORTING FROM RIO
Amid the eruption of noise, the screams and whoops of joy for his opponent, Lee Chong Wei must have only experienced silence.
On and around the court, Chen Long celebrated deliriously, hailing the crowd, throwing his jersey into one stand to whip up a frenzy, while officials and volunteers were in scramble mode as the medal ceremony beckoned.
In the stands, the Chinese fans were jumping and dancing and waving flags, hailing their new Olympic golden boy, and the Malaysian supporters were downcast but on their feet clapping, showing their appreciation for their vanquished hero, who would have felt like the loneliest man in the world despite the chaotic din.
For the third Olympic Games, Lee journeyed all the way to the final of the men's badminton singles competition, and finished with silver around his neck, after going down 21-18, 21-18 to Chen Long here yesterday at the Riocentro.
If going down to Lin Dan on his own turf in Beijing in 2008 was part of Lee's learning process, it failed to get him over the line in the end, after a gut-wrenching loss to his biggest rival in London four years' later.
This time was supposed to be different.
He'd already banished demons by beating Lin Dan in a thrilling semi-final on Friday to set up the clash with Chen Long.
At the age of 33, Lee had another chance to scale the Olympic peak and make history, by becoming Malaysia's first gold medallist.
But sport can deliver unadulterated joy, and it can be really cruel. And in the end, Lee was left heartbroken, again.
Minutes after the medal presentation ceremony, The New Paper asked him what he was going through his mind, and he said: "I just want to rest. I want to go back home and rest.
"I want to see my kids. I really miss my kids.
"I was here early, it's been three weeks already and I want to see my family."
If Lee was made of steel in the tense win over Lin Dan 24 hours earlier, then he was perhaps not as sharp on his feet against Chen Long, as if the edge had been taken away from him.
He made errors at the net, he misjudged the flight of the shuttle, he fluffed his challenges, and was hardly able to string a run of points together.
Wily Chen Long never gave him a chance, slowing down the play consistently, restricting momentum with frequent requests for the shuttle to be changed, or his court to be mopped.
Lee was in no mood to make any excuses, though.
"This is my third silver and I must accept it," he said. "In 2012, I was nervous and lost. But today, my opponent Chen Long was just too good. He played so well."
Was he tired after the tough encounter against Lin Dan?
"No," Lee replied, without hesitation. "My fitness and condition were all okay. Like I said, Chen Long just played very well."
One can picture Lee's Olympic epitaph after this painful loss.
"Prince but never a king", "Silver dollar man", "Bridesmaid for Life", the best shuttler never to win an Olympic gold medal.
He won't make another effort to rewrite the script in Tokyo 2020, when he said: "I don't think I will play then.
"I have one more world championships, and that's it."
Lin Dan and Lee were always bigger than him but perhaps this Olympic gold will be the springboard to launch Chen Long into their realm.
Yesterday, he would have known that even in victory, he would have had to share the stage with a shuttler who will go down as one of the best in the history of the game.
Yesterday, Lee expressed his appreciation for what has been a storied rivalry with Lin Dan, almost certainly drawing to a close the long and compelling chapter of their personal duel.
In 1996 in Atlanta, Malaysia returned home with one silver and a bronze, their best performance at an Olympic Games.
Their athletes repeated the feat 16 years later in London.
Yesterday, Malaysia's campaign at the 2016 Rio Games ended with a haul of four silvers and one bronze.
Badminton shone, with Lee's silver and two other runner-up finishes, in the men's doubles and mixed doubles.
The Malaysians also won a diving silver and a bronze in cycling.
There will be much to celebrate across the Causeway, as our neighbours gear up for the 2017 South-east Asia Games in Kuala Lumpur, and plan for Tokyo in 2020.
But for Lee, his final silver will hurt, and forever be a case of what might have been.