Interestingly, Badminton’s roots lie in India, contrary to the belief that Englishmen invented the game. In the British garrison town Poona, now Pune, the Englishmen stationed there watched children play with battledore and shuttlecock. The object was to hit the shuttlecock with battledore as hard as possible. That was the middle of the 19th century and the British called the game Poona. When the retired officers returned to England they took the concept home, developed it further, changed the format and set the rules. This may be the reason why people think that English were the inventors of Badminton. Today, when we think of badminton, the first images will always be the players from China. Why are the Chinese so dominant? The primary reason is a program of total support that the Chinese government provides to its budding badminton talent. Nearly anyone can pick up a lightweight badminton racket and hit the shuttlecock over the net. It is an easy game for families and a great pastime at picnics and parties. Competitive badminton, however, is not so simple. It is in fact a deceptive game and of all racket sports, badminton is the fastest. A powerful smash can send the shuttle flying at 200 miles an hour. Modern athletes are trained to move at top speeds on courts, strategize their game, build muscle power, acquire leaping ability and sound reflexes, along with solid mental toughness. During the course of one match, a player may possibly cover a mile running on the court. The Chinese training program prepares its badminton players and ensures that they acquire all these virtues.
From being called Poona in ancient India, the game has come a long way. The shuttlecock is often called a bird because it is made from feathers. Many people use artificial feathers but competition shuttlecock has 16 real feathers taken from the wings of ducks or the geese. In early 1870s, Poona arrived in England. In 1873, the Duke of Beaufort threw a party to his guests on the lawns of his country estate, Badminton. There, they played Poona and rechristened it as Badminton. In next to no time, Badminton became a hit with the masses. They played it outdoors and indoors. The playing court had an hourglass shape to enable play at Victorian salons and large rooms, where doors opened inwards. In 1901, the official badminton courts became rectangular. Several badminton clubs were started and all of them joined to form the Badminton Association of England. The association standardized the rules of the game and institutionalized the earliest and world’s most prestigious tournament, the All-England Badminton Championships in 1899. Later, as badminton spread to other countries, the International Badminton Federation was created with its headquarters in Kent. Today the IBF has 150 members. The All-England tournament opened its doors to international players in 1938 and an American woman, Judy Hashman, won 17 All-England titles, most by any player in badminton history.
As badminton continued to attract more competitive players, Sir George Thomas donated a trophy called the Thomas Cup for international men’s Championship in 1949. Incidentally, Thomas was a tennis champion, who switched to badminton and won 90 tournament titles in 24 years. He was also the first president of the IBF. In 1956, an Englishwoman, Betty Uber, who was a top doubles player, also donated a trophy for women’s competition on the lines of Thomas Cup. In her honor, the tournament is called Uber Cup.
Although, England can take pride in the fact that popularized badminton, the game came back to Asia. Today China and Indonesia are two dominant nations in international badminton with Korea Malaysia, Taiwan and India also chipping in with good players. Asian countries have claimed all 23 Thomas Cups and 15 Uber Cups. In Olympic Games too, Asian nations have won 54 out of 61 medals awarded so far.
But China’s edge over others is incomparable. They have a large pool of talented men and women’s players thanks to a unique program of talent nurturing. In China, the government takes care of everything from housing, meals, training and extra-curricular activities for the athletes. This takes off all worldly burdens from their minds and except for playing badminton and preparing for competitions, they don’t have to do anything else. This is very much unlike other countries, where talented badminton players need to deal with obligations like financial support and family issues because the governments do not provide them anything. However, in recent times, the Chinese stars have faced serious challenges from others in the world. For a number of years, Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei held the no.1 spot in men’s rankings and the current top woman’s player is Spain’s Carolina Marin. For a while, India’s Saina Nehwal also held the no.1 rank among women. In men’s doubles, Korea’s Lee Yong Dae and Yoo Yeong Seong lead the rankings while women’s doubles top rankers are the Japanese Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi. China, of course, has top rankers in men’s singles and mixed doubles.