This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of World Gaming magazine.
Dubbed the fastest of the racquet sport family, badminton requires speed, agility, cat-like reflexes and pin-point accuracy. From English beginnings, China now rules this immensely popular Olympic sport which has spread through Asia like wildfire.
Spoils of the Empire
It is said the beginnings of badminton can be traced to mid 18th century British India, created by stationed British military officers. Early photographs show Englishmen adding a net to the traditional English game of “battledore” and “shuttlecock”. The sport also relates to “ball badminton”, which originated in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and is similar to “Hanetsuki” from Japan. The game also came to be known as “Poona” after the British garrison town of the then-same name (the town is now called Pune). The developing game saw its first set of rules drawn up in 1873. Initially, balls of wool used for ball badminton were preferred by the upper classes in windy or wet conditions, but ultimately the shuttlecock stuck! This game was proudly taken by retired officers back to England where it developed and updated rules were set out.
The adopted name of “badminton” has unclear origins. As early as 1860 a London toy dealer named Isaac Spratt published a booklet named Badminton Battledore – a new game. An 1863 article in The Cornhill Magazine describes badminton as “battledore and shuttlecock played with sides, across a string suspended some five feet from the ground”. These early references to badminton have cast some doubt on the prevailing British India theory of the game’s origins. Maybe it was those crazy 18th century French aristocrats?
We do know the first published set of rules rolled off the press in 1893, authored by the Badminton Association of England, who officially launched badminton in Portsmouth on September 13 that year. In 1899 the association started the All England Open Badminton Championships, the first badminton competition in the world.
The International Badminton Federation (IBF), now known as the Badminton World Federation (BWF), was established in 1934 with Canada, Denmark, England, France, the Netherlands, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland and Wales as its founding members. India joined as an affiliate in 1936, with China signing up in 1982. The BWF now governs international badminton and develops the sport globally.
The basics of badminton
Badminton is a racquet sport. The racquet is very lightweight with high quality racquet frames weighing between 2.4 and 3.3 ounces. The frame of the racquet can be made of steel, aluminum, carbon fiber, ceramic, boron or a combination of materials. A competition racquet may not exceed a little over 26 inches (officially 680mm) in length and a little over 9 inches (officially 230mm) in width.
The shuttlecock (known also as the “shuttle” or “birdie”) is a high-drag projectile with an open conical shape, as opposed to the faster moving ball common to badminton’s racquet sport cousins. The cone is formed from sixteen overlapping feathers embedded into a rounded cork base. The cork is covered with thin leather or synthetic material.
Widely considered the greatest badminton player of all time, China’s Lin Dan is the 2008 and 2012 Olympic champion, a four-time world champion, and five-time All England champion. By the age of 28 Lin had completed the “Super Grand Slam”, having won all nine major titles in world badminton: Olympic Games, World Championships, World Cup, Thomas Cup, Sudirman Cup, Super Series Masters Finals, All England Open, Asian Games and Asia Championships. Lin is the first and only player to achieve this feat.
The design of the shuttlecock largely creates the characteristics that are unique to badminton, including its claim-to-fame as the fastest racquet sport in the world. To play an effective shot players must learn the intricacies of the shuttle’s journey through the air once struck – lightning fast acceleration as the racquet hits the cork base, followed by a rapid decrease in velocity thanks to the high drag of the feathers. One also needs to negotiate the net, which starts at a height of 5 feet, 1 inch at each end, sagging slightly to an even 5 feet in the middle.
Contested as either singles or doubles, the athletes must maneuver themselves around a court that has a full width of 20 feet (6.1 metres) for doubles play, reduced to 17 feet (5.18 metres) for singles. The full length of the court is 44 feet (13.4 metres). The service courts are marked by a centre line dividing the width of the court, a short service line at a distance of 6 feet, 6 inches (1.98 metres) from the net, and by the outer side and back boundaries. The back boundary is brought in 2 feet, 6 inches (0.76 metres) for a doubles serve, hence the inside line parallel to the back boundary.
Players must use the racquet to strike the shuttlecock over the net in order to win points. Each side may only strike the shuttlecock once before it passes over the net. A rally ends once the shuttlecock strikes the floor, or if a fault occurs. Each “game” is played to 21 points, with players scoring a point whenever they win a rally regardless of whether or not they served. An official competition “match” is the best of three games.
Asia’s love affair with badminton
While badminton was originally spawned in England, competitive men’s badminton in Europe has traditionally been dominated by Denmark. But on the world stage, Asian nations rule the roost! China, Indonesia, South Korea, India, Japan and Malaysia have joined the Danes in consistently producing world-class players in the past few decades. China has been the greatest force in both men’s and women’s competition in recent years. Testament to this was their table-topping haul of five gold medals at last year’s Olympic Games!
China has won a total of 38 medals in badminton since the game was introduced to the Olympics in 1992, more than any other country. China has won the World Team Championship for Men, the Thomas Cup, nine times and the women’s equivalent, the Uber Cup, 12 times. With a long list of legends, past great names from the ’80s include female superstars Han Aiping and Li Lingwei. Zhang Ning, the 2004 and 2008 women’s singles Olympic champion, now coaches on the female national team. Luan Jin and Han Jian were the male pioneers of the ’80s, the latter nicknamed “sticky candy” owing to his much-used tactic of long rallies to pressurize an opponent into making mistakes.
At the time of writing, the latest world rankings see Malaysia’s 2008 and 2012 men’s Olympic silver medallist Lee Chong Wei sitting directly above China’s Chen Long, with another Chinese star, Du Pengyu, coming in third. 2012 Olympic gold medal winner Lin Dan is currently out of the rankings due to what he describes as “a rest” since winning gold at the Games. China’s fleet-footed 22 year-old Olympic champion Li Xuerui sits first in the women’s rankings with Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon recently moving into second and Juliane Schenk from Germany just behind in third.
Badminton games at the top level are thrilling affairs! The world’s best players keep rallies alive through impossible dexterity and stamina. Graceful, arcing clearance shots are followed by delicate drop-shots, scintillating smashes, and deceptive trick shots from any corner of the court. And no one does it better than badminton’s Asian superstars, spear-headed by the all-conquering Chinese.
OLYMPIC DOUBLES DISGRACE
At the London Olympic Games of 2012, the Women’s doubles competition became embroiled in controversy during the group stage when eight players were ejected from the tournament by the BWF after being found guilty of “not using best efforts”, and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport”. Both pairs from South Korea and one pair each from China and Indonesia were accused of playing to lose matches in order to manipulate the draw for the knockout stage. The teams purposefully made a series of basic errors, and in one match the maximum rally lasted just four shots! Indonesian sports minister, Andi Mallarangeng, called for the rules to be changed to avoid this happening in future tournaments, with Thomas Lund, chief executive of the BWF, wholeheartedly in agreement. You can add WGM to that list as well!