Sport has produced some terrific and absorbing rivalries over the years. Rivalries that leave us to reflect on whether either protagonist would have achieved what they did without the other to push them on, to measure themselves against. John McEnroe and Björn Borg. Seb Coe and Steve Ovett. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Rivalries that, at times, almost defined the athletes as much as they did themselves. And the rivalry in badminton between Malaysian Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan of China is no different.
There is no doubt that, at times, Lee Chong Wei dreams of what his life could have been like without the presence of Dan. Granted, three Olympic silver medals is none too shabby, but two of those final defeats-in 2008 and 2012-came to Lin Dan. And, when he finally got one over on his old rival in Rio, he fell at the final hurdle, defeated by another Chinese athlete, Chen Long.
Lee Chong Wei plans to retire after these Games, so after himself and Dan had duelled out an epic semi-final there was a poignant feel to his exit. And Wei-who was stripped of a world silver medal from 2014 due to an anti-doping violation-was sent a touching letter by Lin Dan that summed up a lot of what is beautiful about sporting rivalry, while at the same time ensuring that Chong Wei remembered who had generally been superior in their tussles.
The letter, addressed "To my older brother, Chong Wei", starts off in an almost slightly triumphalist manner:
We had wins and losses, of course. Allow me a little pride in saying that I won slightly more. But I do not wish to talk about the results, because we can no longer be measured by our results. Some people call me 'Super Dan', and there are also some who feel sad for you, because your luck always seemed to be a little behind mine. Every big match, I would win ahead of you.
But then Lin Dan starts to get truly poetic. This is where the good stuff starts, including some favourable sporting comparisons.
Besides all the wins and championships, there's still a warm 'Lin-Lee' relationship linked with my name. We can be like Ronaldo and Messi, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, Federer and Nadal. Eternal because of each other's existence.
Because of you, there exists a better me. I could have sung, 'It is lonely to be undefeated', if not for you being there, the one forcing cold sweat from me, the one facing me every time we went to the finals with you opposite the net.
Dan goes on to reflect on how "lonely" it was with only the two of them at the top for so long, but thanks Chong Wei for being there to allow him to "unleash" his "full potential", "to unsheath the sword".
As with many top sportspeople, Dan doesn't freely acknowledge that Chong Wei was superior in their semi-final-"when I slipped and lost to you, I had no regrets"-but he has no such reticence when describing his love for his great rival:
When I hugged you, I really felt as if the past ten years with you had been but a dream.
I will take your jersey to my future child and tell him: 'There is an uncle known as Lee Chong Wei, your dad's greatest rival, and also best friend.'
To meet you in my best years is my luck. Good luck in the finals.
Incredible stuff. It's fair to say that Lin Dan's skill with words is up there with his ability with a racket. Such open expression of gratitude and love towards a rival is ordinarily unimaginable.
Rumours of a similar letter circulating the depths of the Internet from Roy Keane to Patrick Vieira are unconfirmed.