Badminton and China: a changing of the guard?

For so long the undisputed kings of badminton, China has seen its power in the sport diminish in recent years. Former Olympic badminton player Susan Egelstaff investigates why the tide has turned for the country, how their rivals are capitalising and what the future holds 

Five years can be a long time in sport – as China has found out to its cost in recent times.

The country dominated the badminton competition at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, taking a clean sweep of all five gold medals as well as two silvers and a bronze.

This came as no surprise to most within the badminton community; after all, Chinese players have enjoyed almost complete supremacy in the sport since it first burst onto the international scene in the early 1980s. 

However, the badminton world has witnessed a sea change in the fortunes of the Chinese since their zenith in the English capital.

No longer are the country’s players odds-on favourites to claim victory in the five events, nor do they have a monopoly over the world rankings.

This change has slowly but surely taken effect since London, coming to a head at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio four years later, where the world’s most populous nation finished with a haul of three medals – a disappointing result by its lofty standards.

Perhaps the most striking setback in Rio could be found in the women’s singles, in which China has been a virtually insurmountable force over the past two decades. Chinese women had ruled the sport since the turn of the century – winning every Olympic gold between 2000 and 2012; however in 2016, no shuttler made it onto the podium, with Li Xuerui’s fourth-place the best finish.  

The Rio Olympics were also notable for the fact that Lin Dan – the Olympic men’s singles champion in 2008 and 2012 and arguably the greatest men’s singles player ever – most likely made his last appearance at the world’s biggest sporting event, missing out on bronze against the 2016 Dubai World Superseries champion Victor Axelsen. It will be a tall order to replace him.

When we consider the enviable popularity the sport enjoys in China, it becomes difficult to understand why the country has endured a reversal in fortunes recently.

The pool of players at the Asian giant’s disposal is huge. It is estimated that over 100 million Chinese people play badminton, with big matches attracting huge television audiences. What’s more, Chinese children begin training at a very young age. It is not uncommon for children aged 10 or under to leave home and enroll in a sports school.

China’s strength in depth is unparalleled in world badminton, meaning national squad players train against world-class shuttlers on a daily basis. Factor in the significant financial support the sport receives from the Chinese government and it is easy to see why the country has thrived in the sport for decades.

Nevertheless, the gap has inarguably closed. Nothing lasts forever in sport, and China must come to terms with the fact that its so-called ‘golden generation’ – headed by the likes of Zhang Ning, Gao Ling and Lin Dan – is now over.

“In the past, China really promoted badminton, so when we were young and growing up we were encouraged to play the sport,” explains world no. 9 Tian Houwei – men’s singles runner-up at the 2016 Dubai World Superseries Finals and one of China’s biggest badminton stars.

“We dominated because of this. But nowadays, it’s perhaps not so obvious that we are the leading nation in the sport. The era of top Chinese players such as Lin Dan may have already passed.

“Having said that, I think it’s a transformative time for Chinese badminton: we’re going to need time for the younger generation of players such as myself to take over.

“It’s time for us to grow up, be stronger and have a strong will to win titles in the future so that China remains the leading country in world badminton.”

Former mixed doubles world champion and Olympic silver medallist Gail Emms suspects that a change in attitude towards the Chinese among its rival nations may be the cause of the country’s decline.

“The Chinese Badminton Team has always had an air of invincibility and the ability to increase its level when it really matters, leaving everyone else to fight for the scraps,” the Englishwoman explains.

“But all it takes is for one or two players to break China’s stranglehold and suddenly it proves to everyone that the Chinese players are human beings after all.

“Badminton players across the world are no longer as intimidated by the aura surrounding the Chinese team. Suddenly, everyone fancies their chances against them.

“Players now take to the court against Chinese opponents confident they can beat them. That makes a huge difference.” 

While this may only be one theory as to why the country has found itself pegged back recently, one thing is for certain: the next few years promise to be a fascinating period in Chinese badminton as it fights to regain its hold over the sport.