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Hoyer-Larsen: The charismatic figure that badminton needed

Former Badminton World Federation president Kang Young-Joong (L) introduces the group's newly elected president, Poul-Erik Hoyer Larsen of Denmark (R), during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on May 18, 2013.  Hoyer Larsen beat out his only rival, Justian Suhandinata of Indonesia, for the post in a morning vote by the group.

Former Badminton World Federation president Kang Young-Joong (L) introduces the group’s newly elected president, Poul-Erik Hoyer Larsen of Denmark (R), during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on May 18, 2013. Hoyer Larsen beat out his only rival, Justian Suhandinata of Indonesia, for the post in a morning vote by the group.

Poul-Erik Hoyer-Larsen’s election as President of Badminton World Federation earlier this week comes at an interesting time, when badminton is poised on the cusp of big things. Badminton could not have hoped for a better figurehead at this juncture.

The sport has rebounded strongly after its lowest point – the match-throwing saga of the London Olympics. At that point, many believed badminton’s credibility had plummeted to an irretrievable level, but the sport has bounced back strongly, thanks mainly to some decisive action by the Badminton World Federation as soon as the crisis broke out. The four pairs responsible were thrown out of the Olympics, although all four hailed from badminton powerhouses. It would have been tempting for the federation to gloss over the incident, which happens routinely in all major sporting contests, but its even-handed and decisive approach won it the respect of sports fans and other federations. That is probably why badminton stayed in the Olympic programme, despite fears that the scandal would see it dumped from the 2020 Games.

Less than a year after that crisis, it is obvious that the world federation is on a strong wicket. A recent press communiqué stated that a new contract for media rights would see its earnings rise four-fold; general interest seems to have shot up, as is evident from the worldwide traffic for its online streaming programmes. The rise of new talent from countries such as India, Thailand, Japan and Eastern Europe augurs well for the sport. It is in this context that Poul-Erik’s elevation to President becomes relevant.

For long, the one problem with badminton was that its biggest figures were incapable of communicating with the global press. In a world where communication through English is important for any aspirational sport, badminton was seen as a sport dominated by traditional powerhouses (China, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia), who seemed content with the status quo. Neither players nor officials seemed bothered about inviting the world to the sport. Hoyer is likely to change that perception, for he is fluent in English, and is a good communicator. A sport aspiring to have a global following needs a charismatic leader, and he has shown signs of being one.

Earlier this year, at the All England, he acknowledged how important it was for badminton to go beyond its comfort zone in Asia and pockets of Europe: “If we are not able to develop we could find ourselves no longer a global sport,” Hoyer said in an interview. “Then we would be unable to achieve a higher position within Olympic sports, which has 25 core sports. If we are to reach our potential we have to show the Olympic movement that we are really global. Right now we have a very strong Asia. We need to make focus on development programmes and confederations, and developing countries. If we look at all the things we should achieve, one of them is being a global sport, with all five continents are contributing at an international level.” It was the kind of frank assessment that badminton needed.

Following his election, Hoyer was gracious towards his defeated rival, Justian Suhandinata of Indonesia. “I have a lot of respect for Justian. I am happy today, of course, because I won, but I’m also sad because in this battle, there was a winner and a loser. But Justian’s attitude was great.  We had a quick talk right after the election and he was still keen on helping the development of badminton and helping us in spite of his defeat. I think this is a great thing and it shows that we are looking for unity in the badminton world.”

The election, held on Saturday, 18th May, had gone Hoyer’s way by 25 votes: while the Dane received 145, Suhandinata polled 120. Gustavo Fernando Salazar Delgado, who was contesting for Vice-President alongside Hoyer, also won office, beating the incumbent Paisan Rangsikitpho 148 to 118.

“One very big task is of course the 2016 Olympic Games and I’m really happy to see badminton played in Brazil,” Hoyer said, following his election. “Our ranking between the co-sports of the Olympics are around 13. My aim is to reach top ten at Olympics. That means that we are at competition with other sports… we have to attract audience, we have to show a great performance in the next four years. I will not go into details about my plans but my heart is in development. I’m looking beyond 2016 and will ensure that the sport remains in the Olympic Games.”

Until now, Hoyer was best known for becoming Olympic badminton’s first gold medallist. He now has an opportunity to be remembered as a great administrator too. “Badminton has been in my heart for my whole life and therefore I cherish this opportunity,” Hoyer said. “I am really looking forward to work with the staff and my council members in order to deliver for the future…”

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