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The All England: A missed opportunity

Whenever anybody mentions the All England – badminton’s oldest tournament – a reflexive association with Wimbledon is made. Indeed, in India, the All England is considered the ‘Wimbledon of badminton’ – and to an extent that is understandable.

That is why Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand’s wins, in 1980 and 2001, are lionised. The All England was considered, for a long time, the unofficial World Championships. Even after the World Championships began in 1977, an All England win was considered on par, if not more prestigious than, a World Championships win.

The association with Wimbledon automatically means that one expects the All England to be an authentic English institution, complete with strawberries and cream, ladies wearing elaborate hats, and winners being feted at a ball. However, my first visit, in 2008, quickly dispelled all such notions. There was nothing ‘English’ about the All England – it was just another Superseries tournament!

More surprise awaited me at the 2010 All England. It was the 100th anniversary of the tournament. Any other major sport would have celebrated the occasion with a year-long festival – but the All England continued just as it had in recent times, with scarcely a murmur. The occasion was marked by a doubles match featuring four veteran players – who happened to be at the tournament as coaches! – and a small exhibition that few noticed. I had expected at least a gathering of former greats, but nobody turned up.

It was a huge disappointment.

This attitude – this indifference to history and tradition and legacy – has reflected in badminton being a sport that’s scarcely noticed unless something of the magnitude of the ‘throwing’ scandal at the Olympics takes place. Few people, even in Asia, can recognise all the top ten players.

There’s something about the sport, or rather, the people running the sport, that ensures it is treated amateurishly. This is not a recent phenomenon. Judy Devlin Hashman, one of the all-time greats, wrote this way back in 1969: “It is not the badminton people who need to be reached but the many people interested in sports of all types who don’t watch badminton simply because they are unaware of its existence, either through lack of publicity or through publicity which merely reports the happenings of the previous day… Although I was never comparatively as good at tennis, it is interesting that the tennis (newspaper) clippings are usually twice the size of the badminton ones, and frequently with accompanying photographs.”

The All England should have been a great opportunity to sell the sport not just in England, but across the world, for it is badminton’s best-known event. And yet, with the Championships beginning today, few are aware that an event of this magnitude is taking place. How odd that in a modern sporting world such anachronisms still exist!

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