Much is written about great sporting rivalries: Federer v Nadal, Lochte v Phelps, Messi v Ronaldo. In global terms, Lin Dan versus Lee Chong Wei sits firmly among them. The pair have been at the top of the sport for four years, playing 13 major finals in that time. Lin won their first Olympic final, in Beijing. This will be their second, and last.
The rivalry has not always been entirely friendly. Malaysians dislike Lin’s brashness, his wild celebrations, his naked displays of emotion.
In fact, the more you get to know Lin, the less he fits the archetype of a Chinese athlete. He has a wicked sense of humour. He is loud and demonstrative.
They call him the ‘rock star of badminton’. He has tattoos on either arm — the name of his wife on the right, five stars on the left, representing his five major titles. He also has a cross on his left arm. He has never publicly said what it means.
The match begins amid an electrifying racket. Lee races out of the blocks, taking the first game 21-15. Lin hits back, winning the second 21-10. The stage is set for a theatrical finish.
Lin’s most feared weapon is the extraordinary speed he can generate from his left-handed smash. This is not just pace on the shuttle — up to 200mph — but speed of thought too. Lin somehow manages to return the shuttle a fraction of a second earlier than you expect him to. His every shot is laced with venom, the snap of a wicked wrist.
There is such power in his overhead shots that few players can withstand the barrage for long.
To watch these two duelling is to watch sport in a near-perfect form. At 19-all, Lee retrieves a big smash. Lin winds those huge shoulders up once more. But this is a drop shot! Lee desperately tries to reverse his momentum, but cannot get there. Match point.
Barely has Lee sent a soaring lift fractionally long on the next point than Lin has dropped his racquet and is sprinting around the arena, dropping to his feet, his coaches embracing him.
Lee drops to the ground too, hunched over his knees in dejection. This was his last chance at Olympic gold. He is to retire after the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Afterwards, the pair embrace and reflect. “There can only be one Lin Dan in the world,” Lee says. “We have developed a good friendship over the years.
"At the end of the month, when we player in the Chinese league, we will further enhance our relationship and help each other in badminton.” The tears flow.
“Lee is such a brilliant rival,” Lin says. “I treasure the opportunities we have to play each other. Who knows whether we will play each other in four years time? But in any case, we’re going to be very good friends. At the end of this month we will be seeing each other at the Chinese badminton tournament. I invite Mr Lee Chong Wei to visit China frequently.”
There is one final mystery to be cleared up, and that is the meaning of the cross on Lin’s left arm. He reveals that it is for his grandmother, a Christian, who prays for him before matches.
He is getting married later in the year to fellow player Xie Xingfang, and invites Lee to the ceremony.
Even though this is the first time I have seen them, there is a strange feeling of loss as they depart, translators and entourage in tow. Like all the great sporting rivalries, this one is based not only on great skill but an almost boundless mutual respect. Can you imagine Roger Federer beating Rafa Nadal and then inviting him over for cake afterwards? Who, indeed, could fail to love a sport like this?