For a case study of the transformative power of Olympic success, it is worth hearing the story of Viktor Axelsen. It was on a Saturday morning in August at the Riocentro centre – the penultimate day of the Olympic Games Rio 2016 – that the then-22-year-old won the bronze medal in men’s singles badminton, overcoming China’s Lin Dan, one of the finest athletes to have ever played the sport.
This was a dream coming true. Viktor Axelsen Denmark - Viktor Axelsen Denmark
In one memorable picture taken during his post-match celebrations, a tearful Axelsen – muscular arms aloft, fists proudly clenched – retains an expression of precious, boyish delight: the realisation of a childhood dream being fulfilled, and his coming of age on the badminton court. Since that seminal medal success in Rio, Axelsen’s rise has been unstoppable. Currently ranked among the best men’s singles player in the world, he is the reigning world and European champion, and has won two season-ending Badminton World Federation (BWF) Superseries Finals.
For the Dane, there is no denying that his time in Rio had a significant –and positive – impact on his career. “During your preparation leading up to the Olympic Games, the players and the athletes in Denmark who have been before try to explain how it is,” says Axelsen. “But you can’t really understand or prepare for what it’s like to arrive at the host city, go to the Olympic Village and live the Olympic experience until you go. Going onto court with the Olympic rings under the net was, for me, a really surreal experience. It’s really hard to describe, and I think everyone should try to experience it for themselves, whether as athletes or as fans, just so you can understand and acknowledge that there’s nothing else like the Olympic Games.”
To listen to the Dane recount his emotions in the aftermath of that match against Lin Dan is to gain an insight into the considerable sacrifices made by athletes at the top of their sports, and the irreplaceable joy that comes when these sacrifices finally pay off.
There’s nothing else like the Olympic Games Viktor Axelsen Denmark - Viktor Axelsen Denmark
“I can’t really remember what went through my head. It was just a big rush of emotions and happiness. This was a dream coming true,” he recalls. “It’s something a lot of athletes are working for their whole career to win: an Olympic medal. To actually make it true in my first Games was a huge achievement for me. That’s why I was so emotional, because it was not only the stress during the Games when I wanted to do well; it was also all the preparations leading up to it. It only comes around every four years, so it was a crazy experience.”
It is an experience that Axelsen hopes to be reliving at Tokyo 2020. And while there were modest expectations of the Dane in Rio due to his youth, come 2020, anything but an improvement on his bronze in 2016 is likely to feel like a disappointment. Does this mean that Axelsen will approach his second Olympic Games with a different mindset, now that he is regarded as a tournament favourite rather than a rookie?
“I definitely feel way more calm now,” he explains. “Winning the World Championships and other events gives you the belief that if you do the right thing and try to get better every day, then the results will follow. The experience I have already will hopefully be useful. I’ve got some good results, so I know what to do leading up to a big tournament, and what I have to do to get ready. I want to focus on that, use my experience and then know that if I’m injury-free and mentally fresh I can perform. Going to one Olympic Games already, and to have done well there, is obviously a great experience too. Of course, I want to do even better in Tokyo, but there are still two years to go. I try to improve every day, and I think that’s the right way to do it. Take one day at a time, one training session at a time, then hopefully I’ll be in my best form ever for Tokyo 2020.”
When Axelsen heads to the Japanese capital for the Games, he won’t be visiting a city that is completely foreign to him. The 24-year-old is the defending champion of the Japan Open, also held in Tokyo and one of the leading tournaments on the BWF World Tour, and is in no doubt that Tokyo’s hosting of badminton at the Games will be world-class.
“Having been to Tokyo a few times already and seen how they do things, how the set-up has been at the Japan Open, I know that Tokyo will be ready,” he claims. “I think it will be a great set-up for the Games, and I’m really looking forward to qualifying first of all, and then going there. I’m sure it’ll be an amazing experience, and I know that every player in Denmark is looking forward to it very much.”
In Denmark, people have been really surprised. They speak more about my Mandarin than my badminton almost! Viktor Axelsen Denmark - Viktor Axelsen Denmark
To the west of Japan, Axelsen is the object of fervent support from an impressive number of Chinese badminton fans. His exalted status is not merely explained by the sport’s long-standing popularity in the country. Early on in his career, Axelsen made the unusual – but highly commendable – decision to learn Mandarin, and is by now fluent in the language, leaving a lasting impression on Chinese fans, media and fellow players alike.
“People have been really supportive and really interested in how I’ve been doing things,” he elaborates. “The fact that I can now speak to the Chinese players and also to players from other countries is really nice. It gives me an opportunity to get way more friends. In Denmark, people have been really surprised. They speak more about my Mandarin than my badminton almost! So that’s fun. Maybe in the future I’ll take on another language, but right now badminton and Mandarin are my priorities. I still have some room to improve!”
Adding another string to his linguistic bow opens up exciting possibilities for Axelsen once his playing days are over. That day is far into the future, but he is unlikely to be short on commercial opportunities when the time comes. “I haven’t thought too much in detail about what I want to do after my career, but I think the fact that I can speak a few languages now and I have an understanding of life in China and how they do things there, and how we do things in Europe, and what the differences are, I think that might be helpful after my career,” he says.
And as someone who has dedicated most of his life to badminton, does Axelsen envisage a role in the governance of the game, following in the footsteps of fellow Danes Poul-Erik Høyer Larsen, president of the BWF, and Thomas Lund, its secretary general? “It’s definitely not something I want to rule out,” he reveals. “I want to see how things progress, but I love badminton. It’s my passion and is something I’ve been doing my whole life almost. It’s something I may want to pursue after my career and stay in the world of badminton. But let’s see what happens; you never know.”