This was the first time in the history of the world men’s team championships that the 13-time champions had failed to make the last four. Seen alongside the quarterfinal exits of the Malaysian men and Denmark’s women (in the Uber Cup), there is no doubt that world badminton has hit a new low.
What makes it particularly disturbing is that the defeats for Indonesia and Denmark were not because of the superiority of their opponents, but their own dwindling talent. Japan, who beat Indonesia, cannot boast of any extraordinary players in their line-up. They are a good team, no doubt, but Indonesia lost because the players who have carried the team’s fortunes over the last eight years or more have slowed down, and there is no replacement for them in sight. Taufik Hidayat fell to Kenichi Tago – once seen as a promising player but no world-beater on current form; while former world and Olympic champions Markis Kido and Hendra Setiawan (world No.9) were cut down by No.12 pair Noriyasu Hirata/ Hirokatsu Hashimoto. Indonesia’s No.3 player Dionysius Hayom Rumbaka could not even offer a token fight in the last rubber to Takuma Ueda, ranked 17 places below him at 38.
What a tragic fall for a country that produced the likes of Rudy Hartono, Liem Swie King, Christian Hadinata, Ade Chandra, and more recently, Joko Suprianto, Candra Wijaya, Hendrawan, and a galaxy of other stars!
In the aftermath of the defeat, there was a predicable outpouring of sentiment from former internationals. Taufik was early off the block, blaming the Indonesian Federation (PBSI) for not doing enough. Other former legends, such as Joko Suprianto and Sigit Budiarto, weighed in. “(The) results are no mere warning,” Suprianto said. “These signs have been there since four years ago — this is an accumulation. It is a bad precedent, and if the government feels it has a responsibility to bring back the glory of Indonesian badminton, then it should act immediately.”
The tenor of these voices hasn’t changed over the last few years, over which period Indonesian badminton has shown rapid decline. Most critics are quick to blame PBSI, but one suspects that the reasons for Indonesia’s decline go beyond just the faults of the governing body. A national body can hardly do anything about a generational shift in perceptions and choices.
Lius Pongoh, former international chief coach, told this writer that the drying up of talent had much to do with socio-economic factors. “When I was a kid, I was forced to play badminton because that was the only way to make some money,” he said. “But now, youngsters have so many choices.”
Those familiar with the decline of professional boxing in the US will find resonance in this argument – that the decline of sporting talent in society has a lot to do with upward social mobility. Champions are often forged out of hunger – a hunger fomented early on in their childhood by having to live without food or money. In the developing economies today, there’s less hunger to excel in physically demanding sports because of wider choices to rise economically.
This is not a watertight argument, for it is seen that rich societies consistently produce world champions too — but Indonesia’s case seems to fit in with this narrative. Solutions to the problem will therefore have to address generational attitudes too.
Notwithstanding the reasons behind the decline of the former superpowers, it is painful for badminton fans to witness. China are left without worthy opponents, and that’s a sad commentary on the state of the game. Badminton has increased in breadth since the first Olympics in 1992, but it hasn’t increased in depth. More countries than ever have taken to the game, but in the countries where it used to be passionately followed, there is a crisis.
Perhaps the only positive arising out of this situation is the opportunity for countries like India, who can now aspire to beat nearly any non-Chinese team. The Indian women’s team, with Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa, are now a potent combination. While they might not be able to put it past China, they can give the likes of Denmark and Korea a stiff fight. But India will have to be careful about grooming talents in the doubles, for the second-rung is nowhere as good as their best players. It’s a challenge that requires immediate attention. The BAI will have to envision an Indian team playing in the finals of the Thomas and Uber Cup, and prepare accordingly.