Badminton ace Lee Zii Jia, ranked seventh in the world, was today banned from tournaments for two years as a punishment for quitting the national team to go independent.
Lee has been held up as the heir to legend Lee Chong Wei, rising rapidly up the rankings and scoring a breakthrough victory at the prestigious All England Open last year.
Following some poor performances in recent months, including at the Olympics, the Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) disclosed this week he had quit the body and wanted to play as an independent.
But the association refused to back the move, instead deciding to punish him with a two-year ban from all tournaments sanctioned by world governing body the Badminton World Federation (BWF).
BWF sanctions the vast majority of tournaments on the badminton calendar, and each country’s association is responsible for registering its players – meaning the Malaysian body can effectively block Lee from competing.
BAM said the 23-year-old had cited “the pressure of being in the national side” and the “regimented lifestyle” at Malaysia’s badminton academy as reasons for quitting.
The body sought to persuade him to stay during talks but ultimately decided they could not agree to his demands, which included having his own team of coaches and support staff.
“Obviously we feel extremely sad” about Lee’s decision, BAM deputy president Jahaberdeen Mohamed Yunoos told reporters, adding it could affect training programmes and the body’s finances.
But he added the player can appeal to return.
Lee, previously seen as one of Malaysia’s best hopes of winning the country’s first ever Olympic gold medal, has yet to comment publicly since news emerged he was cutting ties with BAM.
World number one Viktor Axelsen of Denmark earlier this week voiced support for Lee’s decision to go independent, tweeting that “it’s his career and his life after all”.
The BWF has not commented specifically on Lee’s case.
But in a statement Thursday, its secretary-general Thomas Lund noted there was a precedent of independent players and a country’s member association reaching an agreement whereby the association submits entries into tournaments for the players.
Badminton is one of the few sports in which Malaysia performs well internationally.
Three-time Olympic silver medallist Chong Wei, who retired in 2019, was one of the greatest players of his generation.