Like so many athletes, once lauded and applauded for their feats, badminton legend Liem Swie King fell into obscurity when his days on the podium were over.
After all that glory, gold and applause, King found himself back in the real world: No intense matches, no tough training, no coach looking after him, no crazed fans shouting his name. It seemed nobody cared what became of him after he hung up his racket in 1988.
But 21 years later, King has won back what so few retired athletes manage to get: Appreciation. His biography was published and a children’s movie inspired by his indomitable spirit has successfully opened in cinemas. These accolades are beyond his expectations.
"At first, I didn’t believe it," says the three-time All England winner. "I didn’t think I deserved any of it. . It’s too much for me."
He sounds sincere when he adds, "There are still other great badminton players out there. Why me?"
That was the same question he posed to actor-turned-producer Ari Sihasale, who is behind the badminton flick King. Although King felt he didn’t deserve such a tribute, Ari thought it was time to bring the legend back under the spotlight.
"Why Liem Swie King? Simply because there’s only one *King Smash’ in the world," says Ari, referring to the legendary jumping smash technique that King developed and that has been sampled by many shuttlers around the world.
Ari claims that not only is King a legend who has passed down his "legacy" – a playing technique – to young people, his life story is also inspiring and has the power to motivate young badminton players. King showed what "from zero to hero" looks like, and how people should fight to achieve their dreams.
"I can still remember every single thing I had back when my badminton journey started," says the 53-year-old. "My family members all loved badminton. We had a small badminton court in our backyard," adds King, whose sisters Megah Inawati and Megah Idawati played for Indonesia in the 1965 Uber Cup.
"My father was very strict in training *us*. Whenever I lost in an *amateur* match, he punished me by ordering me to do squat-jumps or run *around a field* 50 times."
Although he always hoped to win, it was losing that ultimately led to his professional badminton career. Yes, he says with a smile, his career "didn’t start from a victory, but a defeat".
It began the day he lost in a junior badminton championship in his hometown of Kudus, Central Java. "I was 14 and I cried. I thought it was the end *of everything*," King chuckles.
But what young King didn’t realize was that the owner of cigarette company Djarum, Budi Hartono, who also runs a badminton club, had been watching his game. And what Budi saw in King was the talent that could make a great badminton player.
"He invited me to join his club," King says, referring to the Djarum Kudus Badminton Club, home to such famous shuttlers as Alan Budikusuma, Ivana Lie, Hariyanto Arbi, Eddy Hartono and Rudy Gunawan.
Budi proved right. "Two years later *in 1972*, I won my first junior title in the *Central Java’s badminton championship* Munadi Cup," King says. A year later, King was runner-up in the National Games (PON). He went on to secure a barrage of medals, including in the prestigious All England and Thomas Cup, each of which he won three times.
"Back then, I never thought about getting any rewards," he says. "All I wanted was to bring victory to Indonesia. That was the only thing that motivated me."
For 33 months starting in 1978, he was undefeated, one of his best periods. But outside those months, he suffered many defeats, too. Perhaps the best known of these was when he lost to fellow Indonesian legend Rudy Hartono in the 1976 All England final. Speculation was rife that he was asked to throw the match so Rudy could surpass the record set by Erland Kops, a top Danish player who had won the All England seven times. As to whether there’s any truth in this rumor . King only smiles.
"Winning or losing is what a game is all about. If I lose, then I lose," King says. "The most important thing is that Rudy and I played for Indonesia. It was a victory for Indonesia, after all."
After 15 years of winning for Indonesia, King finally decided to retire at the age of 32.
"It wasn’t a sudden decision. I had been considering it for two years," he says. "Many people thought I quit badminton because I was disappointed with the PBSI *Indonesian Badminton Association*. But that wasn’t true at all.
"I quit because I wanted to."
But retirement left him in limbo, as he had no idea what to do with himself. "I had no skills besides *playing* badminton," King says. "But becoming a badminton coach wasn’t my choice, either."
So he decided to go into business, starting with selling sports accessories. "But it didn’t work. I had to close down *the business*," he says. But over time, King turned into an avid businessman, running Hotel Melawai in South Jakarta and several massage parlors. He barely even has time for badminton.
"I don’t think I can do a *King smash’ anymore," he laughs. "I prefer to play tennis now."
Spending quality time with his family is another of his favorites – although he neglected to let his children, Alexander, 26, Stephanie, 23, and Michelle, 13, know that he was once a national sporting hero.
"My *eldest two* children didn’t know who I was until after they graduated from junior high school."
King’s children grew suspicious when they saw some people greet their father in the street.
"They asked, *Dad, why did they greet you?’ and I told them that they were my friends," he says. "But they didn’t believe it, saying, *If they’re your friends, how come you don’t know their names?’"
They continued to pester him for answers so, King says, "I finally told them that I was a badminton athlete. "After the belated confession, his children became his most loyal supporters ever.
"They were the one who convinced me to accept the biography and movie projects," King says. "I’m glad for the offers, although I still think I don’t deserve that much."