Badminton: The End of an Era and What the Future Holds for the Sport
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The 2013 All England Championships were completed over the weekend. It is the Wimbledon of the badminton world and it now holds a special place in the history of the game.
Denmark's Tine Baun chose this event to retire at this week instead of in her home event, the Denmark Super Series in October of 2012, because of the prestige of this event and her accomplishments in Birmingham. Her career ended with with a victory over one of the new generation of players, 18-year-old Ratchanok Inthanon of Thailand, who is considered to be a breakout star of 2013.
Since the 2012 Olympics, there have been several big name retirements. Peter Gade is the obvious one, but the depth of the men's singles has dramatically changed since the retirements of Shon Wan Ho, Lee Hyun Il and the decline of Taufik Hidayat.
Three ago, the men's singles had a perfect storm brewing with the Top 4 ranked and most popular players coming from the game's most influential nations, as well as the nations with the most hardcore of fans.
Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Denmark are the perennial success stories at the highest level. To have Lee Chong Wei, Taufik Hidayat, Lin Dan and Peter Gade as contenders at every event, it brought its own sense of uncertainty and drama to every Super Series.
Japan and Korea, another two well-funded badminton nations, have also provided players to contend with the elite four. Korea's Lee Hyun Il and Shon Wan Ho were consistent Top 10 players whilst Sho Sasaki broke into the Top 10 in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics.
Little did we realise at the time what the London Olympics meant for the sport. It was the pinnacle of the sport to date, but in the weeks and months afterwards, we realised that the sport was on the decline.
The main headline from the 2012 Olympics will be the match-fixing scandal between the Chinese pair of Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli, who played the Korean pair of Ha Na Kim and Kyung Eun Jung. The losing pair received an "easier" match against a Danish pair instead of a higher seeded Chinese pair. This sort of blatant match-fixing is not uncommon within the Chinese squad, but never had it been so obvious or at one of the biggest events in the badminton world. Two more teams attempted a similar trick in a later match and they also fell foul of the law with all four pairs being disqualified from the Olympics.
It was a dark day for badminton and the sport has never really recovered. IOC considered dropping badminton from the 2020 Olympics, but instead it was wrestling that received the axe. Peter Gade's retirement at the end of 2012 marked the end of a true European threat within the men's singles. His opponent in his final exhibition, Lin Dan, has not played a Super Series event for over a year. Both players have dropped outside of the Top 20 in the world rankings with fan favourite Taufik Hidayat currently ranked 20th in the world (as per March 7 rankings).
The natural cycle of most sports is that the younger generation arrive to take over from the older generation, but this hasn't been the case in badminton. Players like Sony Dwi Kuncoro, Du Pengyu, Tien Minh Nguyen—who were previously Top 10 players but were consistently beaten by Lin Dan, Peter Gade and Taufik Hidayat—have returned to the Top 10 because of weaker draws and the lack of new talent coming through.
The gap in the ranking points between current world No. 1 Lee Chong Wei (92,199 ranking points) and the world No. 3 Du Pengyu (63,416 ranking points) is so vast that the same gap of 29,000 points would cover the rankings three to 35. World No. 2 Chen Long has became Lee Chong Wei's sole rival within the game and they met for the 13th time in the men's singles final at the All England this weekend. Chen Long won in two close games to begin what could be the future rivalry at the top of men's singles.
The decline within the sport is not purely within men's singles, every discipline has fallen foul since the 2012 Olympics. The Chinese stranglehold within the women's singles has gone, with no player in the last four for the first time in recent memory. Players like Saina Nehwal, Ratchanok Inthanon and Minatsu Mitani all boasted famous victories since London 2012, but lacked the consistency to end the Chinese supremacy within the women's singles.
Unlike the men's singles, there is a group of players all capable of winning at Super Series level. The 2013 events so far have given us three different winners, but no Chinese winner to date. The level of panic within the Chinese squad is evident. Li Han played in her first event outside of Asia and was one of the last Chinese players left in the draw after seeded players such as Wang Yihan and current Olympic champion Li Xuerui crashed out in the first round.
The future of the game for several countries in particular is bleak, Denmark lost in the European Mixed Team event for the first time in 16 years to Germany last month, with their top-ranked singles players choosing preparation for the All England over playing for their nation in the final against Germany. Tine Baun's retirement almost ends any hope of another Danish title in the women's singles for the foreseeable future, with the next-highest ranked player being Karina Jorgensen—ranked 62nd in the world.
China claimed all five gold medals at the London Olympics, but since then, their place atop world badminton has come under threat. They are the undoubted kings in the doubles disciplines but Chen Long's victory was China's first title in either singles event in 2013.
After a number of questionable withdrawals in the opening event of 2013 in Korea, the Chinese squad have begun to make their own rules regarding their involvement at Super Series level. It is a requirement that the Top 10 ranked players must play in the Super Series unless they are injured or face a heavy fine, but the Chinese have counteracted that by simply flying the squad to the tournament, pay for the hotel and pull out in the opening round for a fraction of the price of a fine.
The governing body has to make a decision before a second occurrence like this happens at a future Super Series event and further tarnishes the sport. The only press that badminton is receiving at the moment is negative press, made only worse by players entering their prime being forced to retire or resign from programs that were put in place to maximise chances at the highest level.
Robert Blair, Imogen Bankier and now Jenny Wallwork all submitted resignations from the GB squad, with Wallwork's resignation also resulting in her retirement from the game at just 26 years old. Whilst Bankier and Blair have returned to Scotland, Wallwork was given "no voice or direction" in the way her career was going. The similarities between Bankier and Wallwork's resignation should send alarm bells throughout the current system, yet Badminton England expressed "disappointment" at Wallwork's decision.
The best players in the world in recent months have retired and the new generation of players has failed to materialize to date. Players such as Viktor Axelsen of Denmark was the natural successor to Peter Gade, but during the week of the All England Championships, the only buzz around the player was his switch to Adidas before losing in the first round.
Time will tell if the sport can recover from the highs and lows of the Olympics ahead of the 2013 World Championships in Guangzhou, China.
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