How Badminton Entered the Olympics12 September, 2017
July 28th, 1992, was arguably the highest profile day in the history of badminton. It was certainly the most significant since the formation of the international governing body 58 years before, and perhaps since the game developed into an organised sport near the end of the 19th century. That date was the day badminton first appeared in an Olympic Games, and became elevated to a status which transformed its popularity and funding. Achieving this was a far longer and harder task than many people realised, because the obstacles were some of the most formidable in international politics.
Badminton knew for a long time where it wanted to go. The lure of the Olympic Games was acknowledged by the International Badminton Federation (IBF) as far back as 1965. The Olympic movement had been gaining in power and wealth, and by the 1970’s badminton had many of the qualities necessary to be part of it.
It had two excellent world team championships, the Thomas Cup and the Uber Cup, it was beginning to develop its continental championships, and the number of affiliated countries had increased to more than a hundred. After badminton joined the Commonwealth Games in 1966 in Jamaica, international tournaments increased rapidly.
So when badminton became a demonstration sport at the Olympic Games in 1972, the last leap – into the world’s greatest sporting event –seemed imminent. No-one foresaw the turmoil which first had to be survived.
Hearts and minds were elsewhere. Most people were confident that 25 badminton players from 11 countries had now demonstrated what an athletic and elegant addition the game could be to any Games.
Instead by the time of the inaugural World Championships at Malmo in 1977 hints were emerging that all was not well. Soon afterwards the great Olympic plans came to a sudden halt. The governing body was torn in two. How could such a disaster have happened?
The answer was entrenched in an issue far beyond badminton. After a long diplomatic absence the People’s Republic of China was determined to return to the global scene. The sporting arena was an avenue by which it wanted to do this - but in badminton it could only do so if Taiwan, which called itself the Republic of China, was excluded.
More than anything the IBF needed to include China, the most powerful badminton nation of all, but also wanted to avoid losing Taiwan.
There were other issues, but this was the principal one. The diplomatic skies grew darker still when China, along with 12 other Asian and six African countries became dissatisfied by the decision not to expel Taiwan. In response they formed a World Badminton Federation in 1978. The IBF now had a rival.
Three years passed and many millions of words were exchanged before a solution was found, during which time the split threatened to destroy the Olympic ambitions.
The entire sporting structure of China was involved. Joining an international federation was of extreme importance to the All China Sports Federation, which was the government arm of sport in that country.
So a solution was found by suggesting that Taiwan should compete with the name of Chinese-Taipei. This, according to Sir Craig Reedie, was suggested by the IOC.
However there is no doubt that Reedie, now a life Vice President of the BWF and an IOC Vice president, and Stellan Mohlin, the IBF President, were among the architects of rapprochement, along with Suharso Suhandinata, the PBSI (Indonesian) chair of foreign affairs.
Other compromises were also needed, especially on voting and national representation in decision-making. A significant role in uniting the protagonists was played by Lu Shengrong, an interpreter who later became a President of the IBF.
When the deed of unification was signed in 1981 in Tokyo, it included the creation of a new Vice President, a position initially occupied by Zhu Ze of China. It meant that the great dream was revived.
China’s impact on the world badminton stage was immediate and huge. Within two years Juan Antonio Samaranch, the President of the IOC, had made up his mind badminton should become an Olympic sport.
The speed of Samaranch’s decision suggested the three-year schism probably denied badminton an Olympic inclusion in 1981 – thus preventing the chance of a Games debut in 1988 in Seoul.
That acceptance was not made known until June 5th 1985, though the decisive moment probably came at the 1983 World Championships at Copenhagen, where China participated for the first time.
Samaranch was impressed by the organisation, media facilities, and crowds, which created an ambience both upmarket and passionate. Amidst it Li Lingwei, a brilliant young Chinese women’s singles winner, was presented to Queen Margrethe of Denmark, and a dramatic men’s singles final took place between Liem Swie King and Icuk Sugiarto. This helped settle the IOC President’s mind.
Other successes had prepared the ground. The IBF had developed a competitive structure, agreed an equitable division of financial profit, kept interest groups happy, and satisfied very different attitudes about how prize money should be allocated.
A new licensed player category was created and a compromise struck over disagreements about prize money. This would now be sent by the national association promoting a tournament to the IBF, which distributed monies to national associations of players who had won it. Each association then dealt with players according to their own regulations or taxation or system.
Eventually badminton’s Olympic place was announced at an IOC session in East Berlin in 1985, and an Olympic flag was presented to the IBF at the World Championships in Calgary a few days later. The dream was almost fulfilled.
And seven years later in Barcelona it was – more splendidly than anyone imagined. Samaranch presented the sport’s first Olympic gold medal to Susi Susanti amidst enormous TV viewing figures, and the galvanising effect was immediate.
Money to develop the sport poured in. The IBF’s finances were transformed by IOC funds, as all international federations received a share of the Games’ profits.
And at every Games since then badminton has proved itself an asset to the Olympic programme.
-- By Richard Eaton