Today, badminton superstar Lin Dan (林丹) triumphed over Malaysian friend Lee Chong Wei (李宗伟) for gold at the London 2012 Olympics. This is one of the most highly anticipated match-ups at the London games as both athletes have faced each other at major competitions in recent years, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics finals. In both Olympics, Lee has been Malaysia’s first gold medal hopeful in the country’s history. Earlier in the year at the 2012 London Open, Lee lost again to Lin, but it was due to injury. Badminton fans around the world, especially in Asia, adore them. Knowing the weight on Lee’s shoulders and his injuries, Chinese fans had a soft spot while watching him live. It was a nail-biting show for the Malaysian fans too. Lee took the first set at 21-15. During the second set, Lin over-powered, forcing Lee to give up hustling and instead conserving his energy for a final round of show-down. And, a show-down it was; the third set was neck-in-neck until Lin triumphed at 21 over Lee’s 19. So, who exactly is this Lin Dan? His letter home when he was a little boy said a lot.
At the age of 9, Lin’s parents sent him to a badminton training school in Fuzhou, capital city of his home province, Fujian. Away from the comfort of home (Longyan (龙岩)) and the care of his parents, he would write frequently to his mother. One of those letters was revealed last year on a popular show in China, called, “A Date With Luyu” (鲁豫有约), hosted by Chen Luyu (陈鲁豫). Chen’s equivalent in the West would be someone like Oprah, though Chen likely has a bigger audience. Last year, Lin was invited to the show with his wife, Xie Xingfang (谢杏芳). Xie is an accomplished badminton athlete herself, having won the World Championships in 2005 and 2006 and other international competitions.
I was impressed by the character exhibited in that little boy, conveyed using simple Chinese phrases.
At the 17’15 mark in the video below, Chen produces a letter to the both of them in which Lin acknowledged having written it when he was 9. My translation below the video.
The audience laughs.
Chen reads the letter (my translation):
How are you?
At moments when I am most lonely, when I see other kid’s mothers arrive, how much I long to get a glimpse of you.
But, you left in such a hurry! Mom, I don’t feel like eating. I can’t sleep.
Mom, every night when I see other mothers bringing snack for their children, how I long to take a bite of theirs!
But, I can’t eat theirs. That is not mine.
Mom, there’s another month or so before I can return home.
Mom, every night, I wait and I look to see if you’d come.
Mom, I beg you.
Mom, I miss you so much.
Mom, my sports schooling is going really well. Please do not worry.
Mom, wish you good health and everything well.
Mom, you must come!
I will wait for you.
Okay, I have said everything in my heart.
Mom, make sure you come!
Every moment, I’ll be waiting for you.
The 9 year-old Lin’s letter captured the feelings of many Chinese athletes in these last few decades. The Chinese has a saying, “吃苦,” which literally translates to eat bitterness and means to bear hardship. This mindset has allowed Chinese of the last few centuries to prevail. It is the same mindset that enables Chinese athletes to train harder.
I can imagine Lin’s mother, upon receiving so many such letters, had her share of “吃苦” too. I can imagine the countless tears she has shed.
Many readers may immediately think about sacrifice. The forward-looking me at the moment says that a prosperous China will completely change the game such that “吃苦” is increasingly a thing of the past. Today, Lin’s mother could easily hop on a train, a car, or an airplane to wherever her son is. One, the infrastructure is there. Two, her family has the financial means to travel. Those mothers who brought snacks to the other kids would have ample snack to share with a Lin of today. Kids and parents could video-chat with each other on Tencent’s QQ.
Boarding schools is a norm, even in the United States. For example, top U.S. gymnasts now move to Des Moines, Iowa to attend Liang Qiao’s school.
China’s future athletes will start sport as a hobby, because society can afford that path. Families will not have to make such gut-wrenching bets as China has done to produce her world-class athletes.