Badminton is one of several Olympic sports that thrives in Asia, gets a smattering of interest in Europe and is mostly invisible elsewhere. In Beijing, the badminton venue flat-out rocked.
OK, so I can’t show you how loud it was. Pretty, though, isn’t it?
The hosts won eight of the 15 medals in this buoyant atmosphere, which was enough to turn a contender into a medalist. The other medals went to South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia. All hotbeds of the sport, all expected to win medals at any competition, anywhere.
But Europe has a few people who can play as well. Denmark has had a handful of Olympic medals, as has 2012 host Britain. Perhaps a friendlier atmosphere in London will help?
The annual badminton calendar is fairly busy. The World Championships are now held in every non-Olympic year. National teams also have the Sudirman Cup mixed-team competition in odd years, then the Thomas (men) and Uber (women) Cups in even years. Throughout the year, elite tournaments are held worldwide, with a handful grouped together as the “Superseries.” That gives us ample opportunity to see the top players go head-to-head.
Men’s singles: Chen Jin dethroned countryman Lin Dan in 2010 after Lin won four straight titles — three world, one Olympic. Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei has since claimed the top spot in the rankings. The next three: Indonesia’s Taufik Hidayat, Dan and Danish veteran Peter Gade. Four of the next six are Chinese, which should make team selection interesting.
2008: Lin Dan (China), Lee Chong Wei (Malaysia), Chen Jin (China).
Projection: China, Malaysia, Indonesia.
Top Americans: Not in Top 75 as of February 2010.
Here’s Lin Dan in action. (Don’t let the flag fool you — his opponent is Malaysian, not American.)
Women’s singles: Zhang Ning also won in 2004. The world title has rotated amongst Chinese players: Zhang (2003), Xie Xinfang (2005, 2006), Zhu Lin (2007), Lu Lan (2009) and Wang Lin (2010). The top three in the mid-February rankings are Chinese. Denmark’s Tine Baun (formerly Rasmussen) is the top European challenger.
2008: Zhang Ning (China), Xie Xinfang (China), Maria Kristin Yulianti (Indonesia).
Projection: China, Denmark, China.
Top Americans: Not in Top 50 as of February 2010.
Men’s doubles: Fu Haifeng and Cai Yun have won three of the last five titles dating back to 2006, interrupted by Indonesia’s Markis Kido and Hendra Setiawan in the 2007 Worlds and 2008 Olympics. Yet the top three in mid-February 2010 were Danish (Mathias Boe/Carsten Mogensen), Korean (Sung Hyun Ko/Yeon Seong Yoo) and Korean (Jae Sung Jung/Yong Dae Lee). Will Chinese pairs once again come through in the clutch?
2008: Markis Kido/Hendra Setiawan (Indonesia), Fu Haifeng/Cai Yun (China), Lee Jae Jing/Hwang Ji Man (South Korea).
Projection: South Korea, Denmark, China.
Top Americans: Tony Gunawan won gold for Indonesia in 2000 and the world title (with Howard Bach) for the USA in 2005. Gunawan and Bach are still together.
Women’s doubles: The Olympic champions repeated as world champions in 2010. But as in men’s doubles, Chinese players aren’t atop the list as of mid-February. Cheng Wen Hsing and Chien Yu Chin (Chinese Taipei) have a strong lead, with Japan’s Maeda Miyuki and Satoko Suetsuna second. The Chinese pairs have played fewer tournaments, so this one is particularly hard to call until we see the World Championships.
2008: Du Jing/Yu Yang (China), Lee Kyung Won/Lee Hyo Jung (South Korea), Zhang Yawen/Wei Yili (China).
Projection: Chinese Taipei, China, Japan.
Top Americans: Iris and Rena Wang have been active; veteran Eva Lee is paired with Paula Lynn Obanana.
Mixed doubles: Europeans have managed a couple of world titles here — England’s* Nathan Robertson and Gail Emms in 2006, then Danish duo Thomas Laybourn and Kamilla Rytter Juhl in 2009. Zheng Bo and Ma Jin won in 2010, becoming the first Chinese players to win this world title since 2001. Robertson is now playing with Jenny Wallwork and remaining among the contenders, giving British fans a legit medal hopeful at home. Yet it’s a Chinese pair, Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei, atop the rankings.
* – Yes, they’re listed as English in badminton, though for Olympic purposes, they’re British.
2008: Lee Yong Dae/Lee Hyo Jung (South Korea), Nova Widianto/Liliyana Natsir (Indonesia), He Hanbin/Yu Yang (China).
Projection: China, Denmark, Britain.
Top Americans: Eva Lee is playing with Halim Haryanto Ho, but they haven’t cracked the top 50.
TOTAL PROJECTION (Gold-silver-bronze, 2008 gold-silver-bronze, total change):
– China: 6 medals (3-1-2, 3-2-3, -2)
– Denmark: 3 medals (0-3-0, 0-0-0, +3)
– South Korea: 1 medal (1-0-0, 1-1-1, -2)
– Chinese Taipei: 1 medal (1-0-0, 0-0-0, +1)
– Malaysia: 1 medal (0-1-0, 0-1-0, no change)
– Indonesia: 1 medal (0-0-1, 1-1-1, -2)
– Britain: 1 medal (0-0-1, 0-0-0, +1)
– Japan: 1 medal (0-0-1, 0-0-0, +1)
– Sudirman Cup (mixed teams): May 22-29, Qingdao, China
– World Championships: Aug. 8-14, London (at Olympic venue)