Thomas Cup History12 February, 2015
The Thomas Cup, or the Men’s World Team Badminton Championships, is the oldest of badminton’s world championship competitions. The Thomas Cup began as a triennial event that involved teams facing off in ties of five singles and four doubles matches. From 1984, it changed to a biennial event and ties were shortened to three singles and two doubles matches.
The Thomas Cup was named after George Thomas, the first president of the IBF (now the BWF) and the inaugural event began with preliminary qualifying events in late 1948 and an Inter-Zone final round in 1949. In 1984, the two stages were both played in the same calendar year and the event was combined with the Uber Cup competition for women’s world team champion. In 2014, the qualifying events were replaced by a system of selecting teams based on the BWF world team rankings but following the 2014 Thomas Cup Finals, the continental qualifying tournament system was reinstated.
The Thomas Cup, or the Men’s World Team Badminton Championships, is the oldest of badminton’s world championship competitions, pre-dating the individual championships by almost thirty years.
Despite the competition having attracted all of the top talent of the men’s game over the years, its winners’ circle has always been known as something of an exclusive club, with only two nations claiming the Cup in the first 30 years of its history. In fact, exactly three teams dominated the competition for nearly 65 years before finally a fourth winner was added to the list when Japan won the Cup for the first time in 2014.
The Thomas Cup began as a triennial event that would determine the world’s top team of men’s singles and men’s doubles competitors. When it changed to a biennial event, beginning in the early 1980s, this was only one aspect of a rather major overhaul of its format.
The Beginnings - badminton’s first world championship
The Thomas Cup had its genesis in 1939, when the International Badminton Federation (IBF) was itself just five years old. In a time when the Federation had only fifteen member associations in total, the original rulebook for the event included a provision for one region having only one competing nation for the Cup, and as history would show, Malaya was the sole Pacific Zone competitor in the inaugural edition of the Cup.
Although implementation of the Cup was suspended with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, IBF President Sir George Thomas had already commissioned the trophy and the stage was set for the first Thomas Cup, which finally took place beginning with preliminary zone qualifying events in 1948, followed by Inter-Zone ties that were played in 1949.
The first Thomas Cup ties followed a format that was to continue right up to, and including the 1982 edition. A tie at that time, as now, consisted of three singles players and two unique doubles pairs from each team. Each doubles pair would play one match against each pair from the opposing team with the same thing happening in singles between the top two players from each team. A tie was played over two days, and all nine matches were played, with play continuing even after one team had taken a decisive five matches.
The first three editions of the Thomas Cup all ended the same way, with the team from Malaya winning the final by a healthy margin. Part of those winning margins involved important contributions from Singaporean players such as Ong Poh Lim and Wong Peng Soon. Though loosely interpreted, it was the same country that took two additional titles, in 1967 and 1992, Malaysia, as it was known by then, no longer included Singaporean athletes.
When the Malayan team lost the challenge match in June 1958, it ushered in the era of the Thomas Cup’s true dynasty. Indonesia’s 6-3 win that year was the first of over a dozen titles and they were the first team to win the Cup five times in a row, from 1994 to 2002.
How the Cup Runneth all over the World
Right from its inception, the Thomas Cup was played in stages. In part because of the nine-match, two-day ties, the competition began by including preliminary rounds in different zones or regions of the globe, a format that remained for most of its history.
The competition then culminated in an Inter-Zone final round in a different location. Until the 1980s, the preliminary and final rounds took place in different calendar years as well.
From the 1951-52 until the 1966-67 edition, the titleholder did not need to play until a challenge round at the very end, where that year’s successful team would take on and attempt to unseat the defending champions. Even after 1969-70, the titleholder still automatically qualified for the Inter-Zone final round and did not have to play in the preliminary tournament in their zone.
In the first few decades of the Thomas Cup, the regional qualifying competitions used some creative geography. India, for example, was in a different region in each of the first three editions, going from the Pan American zone, to the Pacific, to the Asian zone qualifying tournament. India even competed in European qualifiers in 2002 at the end of an 18-year period when Geographical Zones were replaced by Preliminary Events. While they remained roughly regional, the qualifying events held in the Americas involved teams from Japan, Chinese Taipei, and Korea throughout the 1980s and in the 1990s, we saw Pan American teams competing in the European venue and Oceania teams sometimes being split up.
It was only in 2004 that the qualifying tournaments became strictly regional, with one tournament to produce qualifiers for each of the five continental confederations. The Pan Am, Africa, and Oceania federations were allocated one place each in the Thomas Cup Finals, while Asia and Europe were allocated three places each. Along with the host, the trophy holder and an additional team from Asia or Europe, a total of 12 teams made up the field for the Thomas Cup Finals.
For the 2014 edition, the preliminary qualifying tournaments were done away with altogether and the now 16 participants in the Thomas Cup finals were decided by the BWF’s new team ranking system. Continental representation was still assured, however, with each continent being granted at least one entry in either the Thomas or Uber Cup tournament. The continental qualifying system was re-instated after the 2014 Finals, with the total draw remaining at 16 teams and the quotas for Asia and Europe increasing to four teams each.
The Game-Changer - then the Game Changes
In the early 1980s, the landscape of world badminton was in for a massive makeover. Competing in the Thomas Cup for the first time ever, the People’s Republic of China took on then seven-time defending champions Indonesia and won the 1982 final 5-4. China would go on to win four out of the five titles (1981/82, 1986, 1988 and 1990) and they followed that up from 2004 to 2012 to duplicate Indonesia’s feat of winning the Thomas Cup five times consecutively.
Not only the list of contenders, but also the tournament format itself underwent major changes immediately after the 1981-82 edition. For a start, the interval went from three to two years and was changed to coincide with the Women’s World Team Championship for the Uber Cup, with the two competitions henceforth to be held together in the same host city.
The competition also began to occupy only one calendar year. The new, more condensed scheduling was part of the reason for reducing the ties to a five-match format, with each of the three singles and two doubles entries from each team now facing only one opponent per tie.
China and Indonesia continued to dominate the new biennial Thomas Cup for the next 30 years, with a sole interruption from Malaysia in 1992.
Finals with, and via Controversy
The most amazing story from the history of the Thomas Cup concerns the Challenge Round of 1967. It was held in
During the men’s doubles match with the teams even at 3 matches apiece, Referee Herbert Scheele attempted to clear the hall due to spectators “shouting, waving, booing, stamping, letting off flash bulbs”, Scheele was quoted as saying. Other accounts note that disruptions from the crowd came only when the Malaysians were serving. Scheele finally suspended play and when the IBF Council ruled that the remaining two matches be played on neutral ground in New Zealand, Indonesia conceded and Malaysia was awarded the Thomas Cup.
Korea’s first participation in the Thomas Cup competition in 1976 made nowhere near the bang that Indonesia’s had and China’s would - nonetheless, Korea caused some ripples on the occasion of its first entry into the Thomas Cup final in 2008. Fielding doubles specialists in singles and vice-versa, the Korean team lost both ties in the round robin stage and avoided meeting defending champions China until the final of the knockout round.
To discourage the future use of such tactics, the rules were changed such that, from 2010, a draw for the knockout round would be held after the completion of all round robin ties.
The Malaysia-Indonesia-China triumvirate of champions was finally breached in 2014 when Japan won the Thomas Cup for the first time, defeating defending champions China in the semi-final and then Malaysia in the final.
Researched and Written by Don Hearn
December 2014Thomas Cup Results
|Year||Host City||Cup Winner||Runner-up|
|2014||New Delhi, IND||Japan||Malaysia|
|2010||Kuala Lumpur, MAS||China||Indonesia|
|2000||Kuala Lumpur, MAS||Indonesia||China|
|1992||Kuala Lumpur, MAS||Malaysia||Indonesia|
|1988||Kuala Lumpur, MAS||China||Malaysia|
|1984||Kuala Lumpur, MAS||Indonesia||China|
|1969-70||Kuala Lumpur, MAS||Indonesia||Malaysia|
|1951-52||Singapore, MAL||Malaya||United States|
 Eaton, R. 2009, ‘Mr Badminton – Herbert Scheele’, in International Badminton ... the first 75 years, Badminton World Federation, p. 30. Retrieved 19 Aug. 2014.
 Davis, P. 1983. The Guinness Book of Badminton, Guinness Superlatives Limited, Enfield, p. 129.