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What's wrong with British badminton?

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Ollie Williams | 09:03 UK time, Friday, 4 March 2011

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, pictured at the Beijing Games in 2008

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.

With players airing grievances in public at the denouement over the Christmas period, chief executive Adrian Christy issued a fiery media release to tackle the sport's demons head-on.

"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 2007

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.

Rajiv Ouseph

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."


  • Comment number 1.

    I wasn't sure if the issue of re-alignment to Scotland was covered with Robert Blair? If indeed he has moved back into the fold of Scottish badminton, then it is a shoddy indication of international sport's attitude to selecting players. As an ex-county player myself I have some sympathy with players who change county allegiance when they move house (for career etc). However, changing country allegiance is entirely something different - I just believe that it is plain wrong to allow it. Once you have decided to play for one country at senior level then that's it - your flag is firmly attached to the mast. It has been happening in other sports, most notably rugby union with England (Riki Flutey, Shontayne Hape for example) where players are effectively selling their sporting prowess to any interested buyer. To me this should stop and the situation should be as it is in football - play at anything above U21 level and that becomes your country for the rest of your international career.

  • Comment number 2.

    It's sad to see Badminton in the Doldrums as it is probably one of the most accessible sports in the UK with just about every sports centre having the necessary facilities.
    I do believe though in time honoured British style that the sport has failed to build on the Robertson/Emms success in Athens. Again it is probably the failure to encourage and provide the necessary coaching to take kids from the level of playing in schools clubs to Regional competition.
    I do think that success in 2012 is an impossible dream, but there is certainly enough interest and player base in the UK to make 2016 a viable and attainable target. I'm sure it will experience a resurgance in the near future.

  • Comment number 3.

    When is somebody from a government body going to start asking q's as to why england's results in the past 2 yrs are the worst in history? In no other business would the 'heads of' still be in a job! The wool is being pulled over the eyes of the people who provide the funding by spin from BE. There seems no accountability of management or coaches (who are also doing a poor job).

  • Comment number 4.

    The whole issue of changing allegiance has obviously come up in this and i agree with derekthreepenny, it shouldnt happen. However when somebody who has chosen to play for England is then excluded from competing and training in the same hall as the rest of the squad what is that person supposed to do, give up? The whole issue of robertson and blair is clearly a delicate situation with management partly to blame however we will never know what exactly has happened over the last 15 years between the two and it needs to be but firmly in the background so the two of them and the rest of the squad can train and prepare in the right environment.

    On another topic, Adrian Christy said in that interview that they are looking to 2016 with the young talent etc. Then why have there been cuts to High performance centres with players losing funding and giving up? When Adrian Christy came in he setup a 100 point plan, 100 points??? It would be interesting to see how many of these points he can even remember off the top of his head.

    All in all Badminton England needs to get their act together before funding cuts become an all to regular feature in british badminton.

  • Comment number 5.

    Personally I don't see the problem with British badminton coming from 'struggling to get kids involved' - from my experience at both primary and secondary schools badminton appears to be amongst the more popular sports with a wide availability to most schoolchildren - the more pressing issue is trying to stream from the grass roots into the more structured club and coaching system - something that England Badminton definitely need to work on.

  • Comment number 6.

    Thanks for writing the article Ollie! This might pass the average folk by but I honestly don't think the set up at Milton Keynes has been working as well as it should be.

    Obviously I'm not an insider but it seems about time we had some open honesty about the Badminton England set up.

    Results would suggest a lack of talent coming through but I would strongly refute that there is that lack of talent. There are young players in the current setup who have been within match point of being world junior champions and for whatever reason it hasn't happened for most of them yet. Yes, there is always a big "step-up" from junior to senior as Anthony Clare and Nathan Robertson have put it but I would question whether the senior players and management have created the right environment to bring the more junior members through.

    As for (Bob) Blair - he sacrificed successful partnerships with young up and coming players to play for England and when he was thrown out the squad - again successful partnerships were scrapped. Is it any wonder that promising talent has stalled?

    I still believe that there are the players in the squad, who have the motivation, work ethic and skill to win on the big stage - I am not sure about the coaching and management setup. Re Rajiv Ouseph - it just goes to show how much a good, talented coach can bring on a talented player!

  • Comment number 7.

    Growing up I was a welsh squad member, travelling England in top, top competitions.
    The problem with the sport isn't getting younger players interested, it's concentrating on those players with the talent.

    When we travelled anywhere, we knew that the English side would always be the best team, and they were, by a country mile. It's how these players are treated afterwards.
    It's the same in the Welsh game, I myself was treated awfully and that's why I quit the game. I till play now for my local team, and coach at county level. I've seen players with great potential go from my county squad to the lite squads get treated unfairly and then quit the game.

    It's coaching that is an issue, not the potential of players. We in Britain need to take a good look at Asia and Denmark, they are producing World Class players year on year.

  • Comment number 8.

    "It's the job of those in charge of the players to bring that squad together."

    Says one of the players - no wonder they have a problem.

  • Comment number 9.

    This article is very very close to the mark and as Mr Davis has said it'll probably pass the average person by. Unfortunately this article is about 5 months too late but still there's hope that it'll send shockwaves through Milton Keynes. Not that it will make a blind bit of difference though because the people who have needed to go are still teflon plated and untouchable. Nath talks of people needing to step up to make their mark in the top 15 in the world and I can tell you from experience that this step is enormously difficult because of people like him. There have been many partner changes in doubles over the last few years and this is mainly down to decisions made by him. If he sees pairs doing well then he gets management to change his partners, which then has a knock on effect on all the other pairs below as people who are in a partnership then suddenly find themselves without a partner. Now this might not seem a problem as you just start again with a new partner, the problem comes with your ranking because with a new partner you have to start at the bottom i.e. scratch. So before he goes and blames the lack of talent a lot is to do with his selfish decisions effecting everyone else trying to bridge the gap to the top 10/15 in the world.

    Why didn't management do anything to prevent this?

    Same reason Rob Blair was not allowed to train in the hall, Robertson would appear to have the ear of management as he WAS (not is) the Olympic silver medalist. This man got the honour of carrying the flag for his country at the commonwealth games, he is supposed to be a role model. So any future athletes out there that would like to carry the flag for your country... Just do what Robertson did... Refuse to play for your country in your chosen sports biggest mens team event because you don't like someone else in the team.

    p.s. Derekthreepenny I totally agree with you on this issue, however, Bob (blair) is trying to qualify for his dream (the olympics) and with managements current record of favouring Robertson by staying with badminton england do you honestly feel like he is going to have the fairest crack at making it too the Olympics. He was given no choice.

  • Comment number 10.

    Hello all - and thanks for the comments. Very interesting points of view.

    derekthreepenny - You're right in as much as this piece does not address wider issues of national representation, as that's a subject in its own right and has only a small role to play in what I'm reporting here. But I suspect Robert Blair would agree with the sentiments of badmintonplayer007 in response. As for the 100-point plan mentioned, I'm afraid I've no knowledge of that and it wasn't a question I put to Adrian Christy.

  • Comment number 11.

    I'm a keen league player & not connected to Badminton England other than by ordinary membership.

    I appreciate that reporting upon disputes will make interesting reading for many, however I'm disappointed to see that these events have gained so much coverage. Badminton is one of the most popular sports in the UK if the measure is the number of participants and IMHO the level of media coverage of the actual sport (as opposed to the politics) doesn't reflect this.

    I visited the BBC Sports website today in the hope of finding details of the coverage of the Yonex All England, and I am disappointed not to find any. It seems that Sky has secured an exclusive & unfortunately I can't justify paying the price that they demand just to watch parts of the final two days on the TV!

    Will the BBC be covering the World Championships in London later this year?

    What's wrong with British Badminton? Disappointing coverage from the most widely accessible media and it being classified as 'other sport' by the BBC despite participation surveys showing it to be one of the most popular!

  • Comment number 12.

    Good article and some excellent comments. After the 1st round of the world's most prestigeous event, the All England, not one English player gets into the 2nd round of the Mens and Ladies singles or the Mens and Ladies doubles!!! The only person who must be happy is the Chief Exec spinning everybody with his 10yr plan to make England the best nation in the world (and 5yrs have already passed!!!). When will Team GB, Sport England (or whatever the gov agency is called now) wake up and put a stop to this terrible decline. I'm fed up listening to the spin and BS coming from BE who can't even come out and say they've failed the nation over the past few years. (By the way, what on earth are the so called coaches doing?).

  • Comment number 13.

    I agree with Goodminton that as one of the top participation sports in the country it is about time that the BBC showed more coverage of Badminton and not treat it as a minority sport. Listening to Radio 5 Live all week about a big weekend of sport and no mention of the All England. Just football, football, rugby, football and swimming - and do not mention a week of tennis in wimbledon week. Come on BBC I am sure you can give a bit of radio coverage and 15 minute TV highlights from Sky if you want to help one of the countries great sports.

  • Comment number 14.

    Within the last decade we have seen 'our' sport move in to the living room of many non badminton players, due mainly to the success of Simon Archer & Jo Goode (wright) & further enhanced by the success of Nathan Robertson & Gail Emms at the Olympic Games.

    All of this success & talent was brought on prior to the funding levels and grass roots support structure we now have. In the early days the addition of Park Joo Bong was a motivation inspiration, but the talent and hunger was already there.
    England (and Great Britain) have always struggled to bring through more then a few players prior to lottery funding as these players had to be good enough to justify invites to tournaments, limited BAofE funding (now BE) sponsorship & support from family & local business.

    I have seen the 'lack of talent' coming though and thoroughly disagree with this, the talent is there, but the knowledge, high level coaching structure and understanding is not, to which the BE need to look at very closely.
    Denmark prove this in bringing very good average players (at junior level) through to All England double Champions (lars Paske, Martin Lungaard Hansen to name a few, Martin Lungaard being a singles player until he was 25/26). 5 years ago I heard Denmark had no up & coming players, we have yet another Danish pair in an AE final today!!

    But I would agree that systematic failure within the BE has occurred on several fronts and over several years due to several reasons. The fact players now expect funding, in my opinion, is were we appear to be going wrong, but open for debate. What I can say is the whole idea of the lottery funding was to create a support mechanism for the players to achieve high level play - remember a support mechanism and not the sole mechanism or sole source of funding for both players and the Governing body. This, in my opinion, has taken away a lot of the hunger required within our sport to be successful, and that 'extra 10%' that turns the likes of Simon Archer & Jo Goode in to real World Class winners. 'Success breeds success, but it is hunger that creates the fight to succeed."

    Managers/Coaches - manage & coach - the fact that prior to the highly (in badminton terms) publicised problems with the above RB & NR, coaches within the BE were not even talking to each other prior to the departure of TKH (Malaysian coach). How this was allowed to develop without being seen by the performance director is beyond belief. This was the start of creating training camps within the training centre, again how this was not seen is yet again beyond belief in the modern era of huge funding and accountability - as commented on above, 'playground behaviour' from our coach's/manager's.

    Players also need to look at themselves and what they want from the sport. I went to the Europeans in Manchester last Year and was very disappointed in watching an English doubles pair looking round for support from the coach mid game. Something you saw at a junior tournament or from a confused Asian player struggling against the European style of play 10/15 years ago, but not a European player!!
    Centralised training is great, but don't knock the individual talent & decision making out of them!

    We can all point the finger at Aidrian Christie for many reasons, but my fear is the failure we are now seeing is due to several years of miss-management from the coaches through to the Chief Executive, and not the talent of players. But, the players need to be in control of there own destiny and not wait for the management to sort themselves out. Badminton is very much an individual sport just like a one/two man business & only you have control over were you go with your sport/business.

    Back to the RB issue, it is worth pointing out that Robert Blair left Scotland as he fell out with the SBU management at the time, as he wanted to train in Milton Keyenes where the better players were training, and hence joined allegiance to England. He has then moved back to Scotland for exactly the same reason several years on. I don't see any problem with this if the reasons are to gain the funding and necessary training facilities to get success, only RB, BE and the SBU now the answer to that one.
    Personally I would be too proud & loyal to England, to want to represent any other Nation and would find the resources necessary to pursuit my career the way I wanted it, which I did without regret.

    I could say a lot more on the above topic, as I love the sport of Badminton, and feel proud of the media success we have gained through the Olympic exploits of Simon Archer, Jo Goode ,Nathan Robertson & Gail Emms over the past decade to which I have personally been involved.
    I pray BE sort themselves out quickly before they lose a great opportunity to keep badminton as a mainstream playing sport in this country, before it is too late.

    Chris Hunt

  • Comment number 15.

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  • Comment number 16.

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  • Comment number 17.

    Badminton on the BBC website is on par to the performance on court: hardly any coverage.

  • Comment number 18.

    I have just read through this article and the various comments following it and find myself pretty much in full agreement with Chris. It genuinely saddens me to see a sport which in the past, with only limited funding, created so many world class players, not just in mixed doubles but also in singles and doubles, today struggling so badly to deliver success with such a significant increase in funds!

    Whilst we can easily target individual players or coaches, it appears to me that ultimately the responsibility lies at the top of the organisation, in this case with Mr Christy of Badminton England, to be so apparently distant from the obvious issues and to leave any action to remedy the situation to a point when it is clearly too late is frankly shocking.

    In a country with so many former great players, who played and competed in the game for the love of it and not just for money, it always shocks me that no-one within Badminton England has the foresight or ability to involve them in the development of today's young talent.

    I understand that running an organisation such as badminton England is about much more than just the delivery of Gold Medals at an elite level and perhaps at a grass roots level Mr Christy is doing a fine job, but my advice to him in the instance of the article above would be to stop pointing the finger, take some responsibility and find a way to deliver the success that is not being delivered today.

    This is a wonderful sport that requires people not only with business acumen but with a genuine passion for and understanding of Badminton to take responsibility for its future success.

    Just an opinion.



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