Badminton Must Go Global by Dominic Bliss

“Our Olympic status has definitely been put at risk. If we are not able to develop, we could find ourselves no longer a global sport.”

These words may sound overly dramatic but when they come from a highly respected expert within badminton – former Olympic champion and current president of Badminton Europe, Poul-Erik Hoyer Larsen – they need to be taken seriously.

Larsen reinforces rumours that have been circulating ever since the infamous match-fixing scandal at last year’s Olympic badminton event –  rumours that Olympic bosses were so disillusioned by the sport that they considered dropping it from the Olympic programme altogether. Fotunately (for badminton) it was wrestling that go the boot instead.

But it wasn’t just the spectre of match-fixing that put badminton in jeopardy. The International Olympic Committee likes its sports to have worldwide popularity. So the utter supremacy of the Oriental nations is seen as a disadvantage. Hence Larsen’s warnings.

“Right now we have a very strong Asia,” he added. “If we are to reach our potential, we have to show the Olympic movement that we are really global, with all five continents contributing at an international level.”

The Badminton World Federation likes to point out its token non-Asian players. Denmark’s Jan Jorgensen in the Men’s Singles, for example; Germany’s Juliane Schenk in the Women’s Singles; and the Danish doubles players Boe, Mogensen, Rytter Juhl, Pedersen and Fischer Nielsen. Many of these will retire soon, however. And the truth is they are anomalies – European rarities in a sea of Oriental faces. Badminton’s centre of gravity has been moving eastwards for the last few decades and there’s no sign of it changing directions. The recent retirement of Danish heroes Peter Gade and Tine Baun add to this trend.

When it comes to Men’s Singles, by far the most popular of the sport’s five codes, the problem of supremacy is twofold. Not only is the top of the game dominated by Orientals, but by two Orientals in particular: world No.1 and No.2 Lee Chong Wei and Chen Long. So superior are they over all their peers that their nearest rival (Du Pengyu) was trailing behind by a massive 22,600 points. In fact, the points gap between the world No.1 (92,200 points) and the world No.3 (66,650 points) is so vast that it’s the same as the points gap separating the next 20 or so players beneath them in the World rankings. Like Manchester United in the Premier League, Lee and Chen are untouchable.

Interestingly, it was at the Yonex All England Open, at Birmingham’s NIA, that Hoyer Larsen made his comments, a major tournament which saw a rare European singles victory for Denmark’s Tine Baun. The 33-year-old was competing in her final ever professional tournament, so the pressure was off. Off so much, in fact, that she was able to battle her way to the title – her third at this prestigious event – and become the oldest female champion of the open era. In what she described as her “last adventure” she capitalised on the nerves displayed by her Thai opponent, Ratchanok Inthanon, and displayed some particularly deft net play, eventually triumphing 21-14, 16-21, 21-10.

The line-up for the Men’s Singles final was far more predictable, with world No.1 Lee Chong Wei up against world No.2 Chen Long. What wasn’t predictable, however, was that the younger man from China ended up victor, beating the Malaysian favourite 21-17, 21-18.

China were also victorious in the Men’s Doubles and the Women’s Doubles. In the former, the unseeded Liu Xiaolong and Qiu Zihan beat the Japanese duo Hiroyuki Endo and Kenichi Hayakawa 21-11, 21-9. In the latter, it was top seeds Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang who triumphed. Meanwhile, in the Mixed Doubles, the Indonesian pairing of Tantowi Ahmad and Lilyana Natsir came out on top, successfully defending their title from the year before.

It may be called the All England, but there wasn’t much for the English, or the rest of the British for that matter, to be proud about. No British players made it through to the main draw in either the men’s or the Women’s Singles. Home nation hopes rested in the doubles events. But even here, all but one British duo lost first round.

Unfortunately there’s also likely to be a dearth of British representation at the BWF World Championships, in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, this coming August. Thanks to the home advantage and the brilliance of their current crop of players, you can expect the Chinese to clear up in pretty much every discipline. In fact, it wouldn’t be crazy to bet on Chinese players and teams winning gold in all five events.

Hoyer Larsen is correct to call on players from outside Asia to step up to the mark. But, bar a miracle, it won’t be happening anytime soon.

Amid rumours that Olympic bosses are unhappy with badminton’s Oriental bias, there are calls for the sport to nurture success in other areas of the world.