European badminton seeks answers
Only six Europeans – three each — in the top 20 of the Men’s Singles and Women’s Singles. Look closer, and it gets worse: of these six top-20 singles players, one (Peter Gade) has retired, another (Tine Baun) will follow him in March next year, and a third (Juliane Schenk) contemplated retirement after the Olympics. Of the remaining three, two (Marc Zwiebler of Germany and Petya Nedelcheva of Bulgaria) are nearing their thirties and are unlikely to outdo past performances.
The immediate future of European badminton, at least in the singles, looks bleak. Their only cause for optimism is the 18-year-old Dane Viktor Axelsen and his senior compatriot Jan O Jorgensen (25). These two are carrying the flag for Denmark and all of Europe. And while the Danes at least have something to look forward to in the men’s singles, the women’s singles poses tougher questions. Tine Baun’s retirement at the All England in March 2013 will leave a void with no replacement in sight. Six young players have been identified for long-term development, but they are a long, long way off from the elite ranks.
In Denmark, and probably all of Europe, they’ve reconciled to the fact that Europe cannot emulate Asian methods. “Asia isn’t the model,” Finn Traerup-Hansen, Director of Sport in Badminton Denmark, said during the Denmark Open. “In Asia, you ask players to do something, and they will do it. In Europe, that’s not a natural part of women’s development.” What he meant was that European players, women especially, tended to question their coaches, which would not be a possibility in China, for instance. Once a coach’s authority is open to question, it is unlikely that he can drive a player as hard as he would want.
The explanations for Europe’s decline in badminton takes three main lines: One, that coaches cannot drive players the way they do in Asia because of social norms; two, that the populations (and hence, the talent pool) are small compared to Asia, and three, that the recessionary climate means players aren’t given the state support that countries like China and India are able to provide.
While there is an element of truth in all three lines of reasoning, it would be interesting to see what tennis has that badminton doesn’t. The hard training or small national populations or lack of state support are no deterrent to Europeans dominating tennis. Is it the money at stake? Do young players choose the grind of the tennis circuit over the grind of badminton purely because there are greater rewards? Moreover, considering that prize money in badminton has rapidly increased, surely young Europeans would be attracted to become professionals?
Perhaps the first thing to do is for the organisations concerned to conduct detailed surveys and find out why a greater number of young people haven’t taken to the badminton the way they have done with most other major sports. The survey might provide reasons that have not been contemplated before. The lack of top European contenders is a worrying sign for badminton, and all stakeholders might need to address this as quickly as possible.