What's wrong with British badminton?
When UK Sport conducted its annual review of sports it funds last December, only one summer Olympic sport received a cut in funding: badminton.
The departure of the team's head coach in acrimonious circumstances followed a summer dogged by in-fighting between top British players. At the Commonwealth Games, with many European and Asian stars excluded, English players missed a succession of chances to win gold.
UK Sport came up with around £8m for badminton ahead of 2012, and has always been clear that its decisions are based on performances, not associated politics. In cutting badminton's support by £540,000 in December, the funding body made it clear that the sport is not getting the right results.
Nathan Robertson and Gail Emms won mixed doubles silver at Athens in 2004, watched by 4.5m TV viewers in Britain, so badminton has tasted fairly recent success. But the pair came home from Beijing empty-handed and things have yet to pick up since.
What has gone wrong with British badminton? Is all hope now lost for the London Olympics in 2012?
Having spoken to Britain's top players, the sport's senior management and sources within British badminton, the reasons for this failure appear three-fold: a struggle to adequately manage players, a lack of talent, and goals being set for the London Games which, given that lack of talent, some believe are unrealistic.
In the last 12 months, British badminton has been badly affected by a squabble involving two of the team's highest-profile players - some of it played out in public.
Nathan Robertson - at the heart of British badminton throughout the last decade. Photo: Getty Images
A personality clash between team-mates Nathan Robertson and Robert Blair had been fermenting for several years. Robertson believed Blair, a Scot who has spent much of his career representing England, never fully supported his team-mates and brought a disruptive attitude to the court. Blair resented Robertson's own attitude and what was perceived as a cosy relationship between Robertson and head coach Andy Wood.
This dispute spilled over within the sport last summer, when Robertson declared he would refuse to play in England's Commonwealth Games team if Blair was also named in it.
England Badminton's selection committee duly backed down and chose Robertson but not Blair. Wood went a step further, asking Blair not to train at the sport's national centre in Milton Keynes in the build-up to the Games.
Lawyers were on the point of being called in when a review of these decisions, headed up by an interim performance director, more-or-less found in Blair's favour. Wood duly resigned, believing his authority had been undermined.
No matter who was in the right, picking sides is to overlook an overriding point: surely this should not occur in an elite sporting environment.
"I took no pleasure in washing dirty linen in public," Christy told me at the recent English National Championships. "But there were a number of comments made about how coaches and certain players had been managed.
"We know the last few months have been particularly challenging for us - we had a couple of difficult player issues to deal with - but as far as I'm concerned it's done, it's finished. We move on."
Referring to the dismissal of coach Wood, he added: "From time to time, decisions have to be made that you believe to be in best interests of performance. A lot of lessons were learned through that process and, as a sport, we never want to go through that again.
"We will move on. The squad is in good shape right now. Robert Blair has come back into the hall, and he and his partner Gabby White are a top pair for us."
Blair has indeed returned to the national training centre, though he has now switched his allegiance back to Scotland (with remarkable results to date, reaching the semi-finals of a prestigious event in Malaysia earlier this year).
But all is not yet rosy. Blair and Robertson barely speak to each other and train as far apart - within the same sports hall - as possible. One source within the sport told me: "They just ignore each other. It's like playschool. Someone should have grabbed their heads and bashed them together five or six years ago."
Robert Blair, pictured in England colours four years ago. Photo: Getty Images
Speaking by phone from Scotland, Blair said: "There was a head coach who came in and told me I couldn't train any more, and there were allegations made against me about my involvement in the programme and my attitude that I refuted from the start - they weren't true.
"There have been a lot of problems. I've been in the programme for quite a while and it wasn't as organised as it should be. There was a lot of changeover of staff, and things like that.
"A lot of politics has come into things when all I want to do is go in and play. Anything that takes your mind away from that, or makes you worry about different things, is obviously quite a big distraction - especially in this past six months or so. I haven't competed much and, when I have, I've had a huge uncertainty over my career, so it's been a difficult time. It's not been ideal for my Olympic chances."
Asked about the internal politics, Robertson said: "Some years you get a lot of that, some years you don't. I've been here 15 years and seen multiple coaching and staffing changes, and that'll continue to happen forever. You want good management at the top heading it, and you want stability.
"Badminton is a squad game, you need to train against the other squad members every day, you need to play against everyone. You need that squad unity. It's the job of those in charge of the players to bring that squad together.
"[That was probably missing] a few years ago and those effects can last several years. After 2012 there is a great blend of youth to go forward."
The environment created cannot have been ideal for the pair's team-mates, particularly younger players trying to break through the ranks. But badminton's wobbling performances cannot be laid solely at the door of one personality clash.
A bigger problem is the apparent lack of playing talent in any position to win medals at 2012.
For next week's All-England Championships, one of the most prestigious tournaments in badminton, even Olympic medallist Robertson and partner Jenny Wallwork (Emms having retired post-Beijing) are unseeded. That would indicate Britain does not possess the sort of talent required to mount an effective fight against countries which, in Robertson's words, treat badminton as a "national sport".
He said: "We're competing against some extremely powerful Asian nations where badminton is one of the biggest sports there is. In England, badminton players are a minority and we're struggling to get kids involved.
"We've got great, hungry young players here - all but two of the squad are under the age of 25. They are maybe just outside world-class level and that's the hardest step, breaking into the top 15 or top 10. But they won't have reached their peak yet. It's a matter of time before they reach that level."
The question is whether they can do that in the next 18 months. An opinion exists in the sport that badminton has tied itself in knots by chasing after success at 2012 with a group of players too young and inexperienced to deliver on time - and that the sport would have been better making the bold move of downplaying its chances at a home Olympics, in favour of focusing on medals at the Rio Games four years later.
"We're not in a failing environment right now," said chief executive Christy. "We've got some of the best training facilities and off-court support in the world. Some of our next generation of talent are as good as their counterparts in the rest of Europe and getting close to some of those in the rest of the world. We know we can do it. If I wasn't convinced, we wouldn't go through the transitions that we're going through.
"We know the only thing that matters is results and medal potential. We're not yet in that position so our focus now is around young talent, the 2016 players training with us in Milton Keynes. That's where the investment we've received is going to go.
"It's an ongoing process of preparing for 2016 but," he added, before I had the chance to ask him the question, "we're not giving up on 2012 by any stretch. We've got some terrific players and we'll prepare our players as best we can and give it our best shot."
It is understandable that badminton is reluctant to write off its chances in London. Spoiling the home Olympic party by admitting you won't be competitive is not the sort of talk anyone wants to hear - players, staff, marketers or spectators.
But if anybody is going to carry British badminton's hopes into the 2012 Olympics, it will probably be men's singles player Rajiv Ouseph. The 24-year-old from Hounslow has emerged onto the world badminton scene at precisely the time his team-mates were being told by the management to play nicely.
Is Rajiv Ouseph GB's best badminton medal hope in 2012? Photo: Getty Images
Ouseph only reached the third round of last year's World Championships, but he claimed a top Danish scalp along the way and has since moved up to 14th in the men's singles world rankings. He could find himself the only British player who qualifies for the London Olympics.
Having initially been seen as lacking the motivation and drive to reach the top, Ouseph acquired a new coach in Kenneth Jonassen, kept his head down while all around him were losing theirs, and gained the maturity and confidence needed to hold his own in the highest echelons.
"Obviously, a couple of people left," is how Ouseph carefully sums up the off-court events of 2010. "Now I'm trying to focus on playing as well as I can and let those issues deal with themselves.
"[If we get] a bit of stability, hopefully that'll make the on-court matters more important. Last year as a sport we didn't do that well on the world scene, hopefully this year we can address that situation and get our funding back.
"The Olympic qualification period starts in May for us - plus the All-England and the World Championships being held in London makes it a big year for us. A medal at the Worlds would be ideal for me, then hopefully we'll get as many people into the Olympics as we can and build from that."
Britain's badminton players have endured a tough time off the court and face an immense challenge to overcome daunting opponents on it. Developing players who can win those battles will take time, both for them to learn and the dust to settle. Forgoing 2012 in favour of success at 2016 may prove a wise decision.
"We should be role models," Blair told me. "In any sport, in any walk of life, people look up to the older people who've been there before. There's a responsibility that we show them the right kind of commitment, the right kind of attitude - and if we can help them along, we should do that.
"It's not just about British badminton; if you get to the top of British badminton that doesn't mean terribly much. It's beating the other countries in the world, and we've a responsibility to make the younger players better than we've been, so they can push forward, get better results and look to qualify for future Olympics."