Formation of an International Federation17 August, 2016
The creation of an international governing body for badminton was a trigger for faster development – not just because the sport was ready for such progress but because the timing of it was particularly good.
It happened in a phase between two world wars when an acceleration of social, economic and technological change took place in the industrialised world. Strangely however the International Badminton Federation was generated partly by an inward-looking dispute within the United Kingdom, which somehow developed into a visionary international outlook. It also led to the appointment of one of the most unusual founder-Presidents any sport ever had.
No-one can have realised what a flood of comradeship, entertainment and sporting excellence would be unleashed by the formation of the International Badminton Federation in 1934, though it would be nice to think the founders had an inkling.
Badminton’s obvious readiness for such a mighty stride indicated that it had growing popularity, though none of this guaranteed progress. That required vision, timing, and a touch of good fortune. The sport’s pioneers had all three.
The vision of the IBF may initially have been short term. It may have seemed that badminton might spread throughout North America (but it didn’t really), and it was certainly hoped that Malaya might soon join (it did), perhaps opening a door to other Asian nations (it spectacularly did).
The timing however was excellent. This was an era of new tungsten lighting, better heating, less restrictive clothing, rapidly expanding transport, the spread of radio, more leisure time, and some emancipation for women.
Badminton’s pioneers rode this wave of progress. Had they delayed a few years, World War Two would have stunted the IBF’s birth, perhaps harming its post-war progress significantly.
As for the touch of good fortune, this was exceptional. That was because the IBF’s founder-President was Sir George Thomas, a shy and slightly eccentric baronet with extravagant resources of time, energy, knowledge, and enthusiasm.
Perhaps that gave the early IBF a dilettante quality – Thomas also played tennis at Wimbledon and was a Grand Master at chess – but his was a uniquely beneficial influence on the organisation of badminton and upon its competitive development. He won 21 All-England titles, thus possessing considerable talents for playing, as well as for administering and spreading the game.
The official reason for the formation of the IBF, on July 5th 1934, was that badminton’s spread no longer made it appropriate for one country to administer it. However it was also discontent from Ireland, Scotland and Wales which caused the historic inaugural meeting at Bush House in London.
These three countries were permitted only one vote each on a 22-strong committee of the Badminton Association (the British governing body). So they appealed to the BA’s most influential man, Sir George Thomas, who helped dispel some of his colleagues’ disapproving attitudes and then elicited their practical support. The outcome was a BA donation of £200 (now worth perhaps ten times as much) to the infant international body.
The IBF’s birth thus happened 41 years after the BA’s, with nine founder members, India becoming the first Asian member a year later.
During those four decades many stepping-stones were laid. One was the set of rules drawn up by the BA in 1893. Soon a rectangular court was standardised, a vital development because by 1900 there were nearly 50 affiliated clubs, and strides were also being taken in Europe, the USA, and Asia.
Another step forward was badminton’s first official tournament, which took place at Guildford, near London, in1898. It offered mixed doubles, ladies doubles and men’s doubles. Singles, regarded by some people as selfish, was not included!
Despite this the tournament became a catalyst, leading next year to the creation of the All-England Championships. Its relatively humble beginnings at the Scottish drill Hall in London belied its subsequent status as the world’s pre-eminent tournament, which it retained for many decades.
Its popularity increased so rapidly that it grew from one to four days by 1910, then moving to the larger Royal Horticultural Hall in Westminster, where it played to packed crowds for 30 years.
The new medium of radio helped this, the first badminton broadcast being made by B.L. Bisgood, an Irish international who told the world about its athleticism, sociability and inexpensiveness.
The acceleration of progress after the 1914-18 war generated about 50 new clubs each year. Prizes, expenses, and sponsorships increased too, causing the BA to address the growing issue of professionalism in 1921.
By then the organised game had spread beyond the British Isles. It enjoyed progress in The Netherlands, and a real surge in Denmark, which adopted it as a national winter sport, developing an outstanding club system. Within ten years a country of only five million people had generated world-beaters.
Badminton also developed in Canada, but progress in the USA was chequered. Although it became popular in the 1920’s in California, where the Hollywood community took to it, with 3,000 people watching Jess Willard play Jack Purcell in 1935, these promising beginnings were not built on.
Organised badminton happened more slowly in Asia. Surprisingly India,such an important influence on badminton’s birth in the 19th century, gained no indoor tournament until 1929.
It spread faster in the Malay states, where badminton parties were popular among rich traders during the 1920's. After a Malayan badminton association began in 1934 it took only four years before 25,000 were recorded as playing the game.
Nearby Indonesia saw the game introduced in the late 1920’s, but the difficulties of spreading it through a17,500-island archipelago delayed the formation of a national association until1951.
By contrast badminton seems to have spread steadily in the 1930’s through China, where shuttlecock games had deep roots. Its potential here was enormous, and no-one should have been deceived by the absence of a Chinese badminton association until the 1950’s. A multitude of things were happening unseen.
So the infant IBF had potential even greater perhaps than its founders realised. After the devastation of World War Two, a membership total of 16 in 1949 doubled within five years, organised badminton reaching every continent within two decades.
By the time the IBF became the BWF in 2007, the family had more than 160 countries. And its offspring continue to emerge.
-- By Richard Eaton