China's Lin Dan is the bad boy of badminton

EFE/EPA/Georgios Kefalas

The All England Badminton Championships is the oldest and most venerable tournament in the sport. It was launched in 1899 and dominated for decades by British gentlemen in high-waisted, white trousers. Today, though, on this warm March afternoon in 2017, the 118-year saga of the All Englands has come down to this: A Chinese man has just thrown himself to the ground on center court. Lin Dan, who is 33 and a six-time All England Champion, is having a tantrum. He is infuriated at the umpire and also, perhaps, infuriated at himself because in today's quarterfinal match against a lanky young Dane named Viktor Axelsen, the world's fourth-ranked player, he has just been called for thrusting his racket over the net. In outrage, Lin has flopped down onto his back at the Barclaycard Arena in England's second city, Birmingham. Having lost the point, he seems gripped by an existential pain. He is writhing on the ground.

But if you're a fan of Lin -- if you're one of the millions who revere this dashing enfant terrible and handsome sex symbol -- this is actually a hopeful moment, for Lin is displaying, once again, the fire that propelled him to stardom. This is, remember, the guy who in 2008 chucked his racket at South Korean coach Li Mao en route to losing a match, then had to be restrained from punching that coach. Later in 2008, at a Chinese team practice, Lin didn't hold back from punching his own coach, according to witnesses. More recently, he has breakdanced on court, shirtless, and also cussed in front of video cameras and explained that he "used the curses to motivate myself." Meanwhile, Lin sports five tattoos, most notably a large crucifix on his left arm, scribed there in homage to his Christian grandmother.

Tattoos are no big deal in American sports, of course; the NBA is practically a river of ink. But in China, mores are tighter, particularly for top athletes, nearly all of whom are government employees. Lin was until recently a lieutenant colonel in the Chinese army, which strictly forbids tattoos, and when he got his crucifix, the Chinese media was awash in hand-wringing worry. One headline read, "Can professional army man get tattooed?" The People's Daily News airbrushed over the crucifix in publishing one photo of Lin, and all the while Lin found himself the point man for a Chinese revolution that's been percolating for more than three decades now. A long time ago in China, it was all about Mao jackets and clunky black bicycles. But gradually as capitalism swept in, then personal wealth, the color scheme changed, and myriad swashbuckling renegades leaped to the fore -- in business and the arts, as well as in sports.

Lin isn't the only rebel Chinese athlete. Recently retired tennis star Li Na has a tat of her own, a rose on her pec, but no one in China has borne a careening, devil-may-care disdain for as long as Lin has. In the public eye for 17 years now, in a nation where tens of millions of people can tune into a televised badminton match, he is almost an institution. Dissent, incorporated, you might call it, given that he has of late taken to marketing his bad-boy mystique. In 2015, he launched his own brand of sexy men's underwear.

Lin is a legend, and he heads south this week to Kuala Lumpur for the Malaysian Open (April 4-9), he is quite possibly tired. He is ancient by his standards of his sport and also perhaps a little rusty, having taken a seven-month hiatus from competition after finishing a disappointing fourth in the Rio Olympics. He is still ranked sixth in the world, but one of his old rivals -- Peter Gade is, at 40, a retired Danish star -- has suggested that Lin's glory run might be over.

"For years," Gade said, "top-level play has exerted a tremendous pressure on his body, on his life. You pay a check for that in the end."

Last fall, certainly, Lin got distracted -- and not with helping his wife, retired Chinese shuttler Xie Xingfang, ready for the birth of their first child, a son born in November and named Lin Hanyu. No, as Xie was pregnant, Chinese paparazzi caught Lin canoodling with a young Chinese model and beauty queen, Zhao Yaqi. Indicting photos reached a billion users on Weibo, China's Facebook equivalent. Lin apologized -- quickly, tearfully -- but here at the All Englands, he still seems preoccupied. Several times, he bungles easy shots, smacking them low into the net.

Up in the nosebleed seats of Block 11, each one of these flubs elicits burbling glee. The Malaysian fans are sitting there, deeply conscious of their country's history. In its 54 years of independence, Malaysia has never won an Olympic gold medal, in any sport. But this small tropical nation is very good in badminton. Its veteran star, 34-year-old Lee Chong Wei, is currently ranked No. 1 in the world and blessed with a name that is easily chanted. Later in the tournament, the building will reverberate as the Malaysians bellow, "Lee! Chong! Wei! Lee! Chong! Wei!"

But Lee, playing here with a knee brace and kinesio tape on his shoulder, carries none of Lin's virile charisma. He is a bird-thin man with a slender beak of a nose, and he is shy and humble, with a sweet, boyish grin. In the 36 matches he's played all-time against Lin, he has lost 25 times. Lin schooled him in the men's singles finals of both the 2008 and the 2012 Olympics, and then in the 2016 finals, another Chinese player, Chen Long, made Lee a bridesmaid once more.

"In Kuala Lumpur," said Malaysian reporter Adam Zamri, from broadband channel Astro Arena, "the Chinese are hated, and Lin Dan is the nemesis."

The Malaysians want Lin to falter, and in Birmingham, he does, surreally. On three separate occasions in the first game of his best-of-three against Axelsen, he stops at the baseline, beside a plummeting lob, waiting -- hoping -- for the shuttle to land out. Every single time, it lands in. Is there some funky draft swirling about in the rafters of the Barclaycard Arena? Who knows? As Axelsen finishes off his 21-8 thrashing, Lin seems befuddled, lost. Is he trying to find his way back, to remember the world beater he was once, in his youth?

It is difficult to know what goes on in Lin's head. He lives, as most Chinese athletes do, behind a sort of curtain. The Chinese badminton team tends to not allow the public a full view of his private life, and he rarely gives long interviews. To search for the real Lin, all you can do is try to interpret his public gestures.

Last fall, after his affair, Lin enunciated his apology on Weibo, in the unctuous language that celebrities typically invoke when they're caught red-handed. "As a man," he said, "I don't want to use any excuse. But what I've done has hurt my family and I want to apologize to my family here." A carefully crafted photo ensued: Weibo habitues found a beloved Chinese table tennis star, Zhang Jike, standing over Lin and his wife, wrapping the couple in his arms in benediction as the two seated shuttlers lean into toward one another, all lovey-dovey, and a smiling Lin flashes the peace symbol to make clear that the storm has passed; calm has prevailed.

Lin's affair was a new twist in China. He was the first prominent athlete to get caught cheating, and on Weibo, 780,000 people weighed in with comments. The South China Morning Post, meanwhile, wondered about his financial future, writing, "Lin Dan is said to be worth as much as US$32.5 million thanks to his many endorsement deals -- does he now stand to lose it all?"

Lin might have been genuinely contrite, but he was also likely intent on saving his skin, post affair, and his mea culpa worked. Partly because cheating is commonplace among powerful Chinese men (politicians do it all the time), not a single one of Lin's sponsors gave him the Tiger Woods treatment -- not Montblanc nor Pepsi nor Oakley.

A 2008 television clip, shot after Lin's stand-down with the Korean coach, is a bit more revealing. In it, we find a slightly younger, fresh-faced Lin still hot under the collar, his hair gelled into insouciant spikes as he refuses to apologize.

"He verbally attacked me," Lin would later say of Li Mao. "I could not accept him saying such things."

Never mind that Li was 50 at the time, and a distinguished coach who had once played on the Chinese national team. Lin yielded no deference, no sympathy, and he was sour grapes about the Chinese's team's defeat that day.

"The Korean team won very dishonorably," he said, "and I lost very unhappily. I will not apologize for this matter."

There is something restless and hungry in Lin, and perhaps it was there from the start. When he was 4 years old and growing up in Fujian, a hot, humid coastal province in southern China, his parents hoped that their only child to be a pianist. He was already starting lessons. But, as Lin himself remembered, "I was very active. I couldn't sit still for a long time." He convinced his mom to take him to a gym, to play with other kids, and when he first beheld badminton, he was transfixed, he said, by "the way the shuttle just kept flying in the air, never touching the ground. I fell in love immediately."

Soon his mother and father -- mid-level workers at, respectively, a government agency and a state-run pharmaceutical company -- rejiggered their hopes and focused on badminton. When he was 7 years old, according to his manager, Atom Cheung, they wanted to send him to Fujian's provincial badminton school but, said Cheung, "He was too short. The provincial team didn't want him." Lin, who's 5-foot-10 now -- enrolled instead at a Fujian badminton school run by the People's Liberation Army.

"It was a bit stricter than the provincial school," said Cheung. "There was not enough food. He had to fight with the other kids for food, and in the summers, it was so hot that he couldn't sleep."

When Lin was still 7, his mother visited him. Seeing his dire living conditions, she wanted to take him home. But according to Cheung, Lin fought back, telling her he wanted to stay; he wanted to be a champion. He lived at the school for the next decade, making only annual visits to his parents at Chinese New Year. He remained an unruly youngster, often arguing with his coach.

"Some coaches didn't like him, so they tried to alienate him," said Cheung. "They wouldn't refer him to the national team, and the national team didn't want him. They thought, 'He won't mature into a solid player.'"

But there is something almost craven about Lin's thirst to win. When he plays cards against his family, he is "ruthless," said Cheung. "He is in it for victory." Then, in 2000 at age 16, he won the Badminton Asia Junior Championships.

And it was not long after that it dawned on Chinese populace that the guy was rather good-looking.

In Birmingham, there are dozens of young females, most of them Asian college students, who are outside the arena, waiting for Lin each afternoon of the six-day tournament. They're eager for a selfie with their crush, or at least a glimpse of his hunky self. Have they seen the Intimates ad -- the one in which Lin himself models his signature skivvies, standing in what in appears to be a leafy jungle, his loins clad in nothing but snug crimson boxer briefs emblazoned with the Chinese character for "War"? What about the videos ads for Chinese Intel -- that series of six one-minute-long visual poems that dwell on Lin's tattoos, lingering so lovingly on his skin that certain individual pores seem almost holy?

One hardly wants to ask. These young women giggle. They squeal. They clutch their cell phones close to their bosoms, and each time Lin emerges, he throws them only a bone -- a single perfunctory smile, say, or a group photo with the five or 10 lucky girls who happen to be standing nearest. When he splits, his fans' pursuit has the strange, cartoonish quality of a video game. Birmingham is an old, industrial city endowed with more miles of canal than Venice, Italy, and the Barclaycard Arena sits, it so happens, at the confluence of three canals, meaning that there are bridges and tunnels and footpaths everywhere. If he cuts down one path to avoid a pack of admirers, there will, inevitably, be more smitten girls awaiting him inside the next tunnel -- and soon after that, more bridges, more tunnels: No escape.

It is not easy being Lin. In a quick, polite interview in Birmingham, he gripes about the drudgeries of professional badminton.

"I have a lot of tournaments this year," he said, "three this month alone. There are too many competitions that we have to do, just to maintain a world ranking."

There is also the tedious ordeal of early-round matches. In Birmingham, in the first round, Lin is obliged to face Zulfadli Zulkiffli, a young Malaysian currently ranked 32nd in the world. Lin finishes the poor fellow off in 31 minutes, winning 21-11, 21-12. Then, in the second round, he scores an equally lopsided victory over his countryman Huang Yuxiang in a match that is, at 46 minutes, only different in its pacing. Whenever the mood strikes, Lin halts play, summoning a mopper out onto the court to mop up a spot of sweat on the floor.

The call for a mopper is a standard delay tactic in badminton, and it's a move that is inevitably steeped in inequity: Moppers are volunteers. They are teenagers, almost invariably, who seem to have scored the gig because their mother made a few phone calls, and they are at the beck and call of their idols. In Birmingham, Lin has no common language with the young moppers, and so his gestures are emphatic and also, quite often, repeated. He has a habit of insisting on redos from the moppers, so that, just as a given mopper is sprinting off the court in the belief that he's done, Lin is pointing at the ground in contempt, saying, essentially, "No! What about this spot here?" All his opponent can do is pace in circles and wait, increasingly cognizant that he is second in command on the court.

There's a gravitas about Lin, and it's evident at the very start of the Axelsen semifinals, when the 6-foot-4, 23-year-old Dane warms up by prancing about in his forecourt, pantomiming all sorts of badminton shots sans shuttle -- the smash, the volley, the lunge at the net. Lin just hunkers down near his short service line, rubbing the toe of his sneaker against the court, silently glowering. There's a certain amperage to him, it seems, and after the abysmal first game, Lin somehow plugs in.

Early in Game 2, he pelts Axelsen with an unreturnable slam that a courtside LED monitor registers at 370 kilometers per hour (about 230 mph). Up in the stands, a chant mounts among the Chinese fans: "Jiayo! Jiayo!" Let's go, let's go! To make the moment linger, Lin calls for the mopper, and then, pointing, he calls for two redos. Axelsen waits, fidgeting with his racket, stepping courtside for a nervous sip of sports drink.

Two points later, Lin buries him with a 348 kph (about 215 mph) slam. He wins the game 21-14, and soon the import of this match becomes clear. It was Axelsen who whipped Lin Dan for the bronze at last the Olympics last summer. Is the old man capable of revenge, of resurrection?

Well, we could talk about the Swiss Open, which would take the place the following weekend. Lin won the whole tournament, and all five of his matches, without losing a single game. In Birmingham, he does not fare as well, bowing out in the semis to his countryman Shi Yuqui. But there are glimmers of brilliance.

In the very last point of his match against Axelsen, up 21-15, he plays the Dane like a marionette, driving him to each corner before serving up a high, towering lob -- a sucker punch. Axelsen smacks the lob into the net. Lin drops to his knees. Then, just before he stalks off, he throws his racket at the ground, hard, so it bounces and clatters and you wonder, afterwards, if he has actually broken the thing.

Up in Block 11, where the Malaysians are sitting, the stands fill with a low, mournful groan.

-- Additional reporting Joseph Li