China believes it has found the solution to the dwindling number of youngsters playing badminton but its proposed professional league looks certain to put it on a collision course with world governing body, the BWF.
As the country’s top players do battle at this week’s All England championships in Birmingham, the Chinese Badminton Association (CBA) says there are now just a thousand registered players in China and the relaunch of a national league is essential to boost those numbers.
“The league is a must, as it is the only way to commercialise and promote badminton,” CBA spokeswoman Wang Yuyan told Reuters.
Inevitably, however, the proposed league would result in Chinese players shunning international events to play at home.
“You cannot burn the candle at both ends, we will have to give up some international tournaments,” China’s head coach Li Yongbo told state media.
The Badminton World Federation (BWF), who got an inkling of what to expect when China withdrew all its leading players from last season’s first Super Series finals, said on Wednesday it wanted to talk to the CBA about the league.
“The BWF is concerned with the development but welcomes open discussion on the issue for the mutual benefit of all parties,” BWF chair of events Paisan Rangsikitpho told Reuters by e-mail.
China has dominated badminton since the country returned to the international sporting arena in the 1970s. Chinese players won 11 of 20 medals at the 2007 world championships and eight of 15 at last year’s Beijing Olympics.
In an increasingly affluent China, however, parents restricted by law to one child no longer see sport as an attractive way for their sole offspring to get on in life.
The CBA’s solution is the six to eight team league, which it says has already attracted 20 million yuan ($2.92 million) in sponsorship ahead of a projected start by the end of the year.
“This will make more and more Chinese parents let their children play badminton since they can see hope through the league,” said Liu Fengyan, director of the Badminton and Table Tennis Administration.
The CBA admits clashes with the international calendar are inevitable but says they will be kept to as few as possible.
“The league is carefully working on the schedule to co-ordinate with the international tournaments as much as possible,” said Wang.
“The national team’s performance on the international stage must not be affected, as well as the status China has held in the badminton world,” she added.
The league, announced with a flurry of publicity last month, is still at the planning stage, however, and the CBA is well aware that China’s previous professional competition collapsed seven years ago when it ran out of money.
Liu said the league would initially be experimental, while the influential Li has suggested it would be safer to start with a smaller league and develop it step by step.
“If we run a league at a cost to the national team’s interests, I’d prefer no league,” said Liu.
Despite China’s huge success in international badminton, the CBA are in no doubt that the country will face a crisis in the mid to long term if the present decline is not arrested.
“Chinese badminton faces a challenge,” Liu said. “Many provinces have shelved their badminton teams … at the same time there have been no new teams formed for 30 years.”
The nationwide network of grassroot amateur sports schools, the base of the Chinese sports pyramid which has been producing talented youngsters for provincial and ultimately the national team for years, is also struggling to attract students.
While China’s world-beating badminton squad, which boasts world and Olympic champion Lin “Super” Dan, attracts a huge amount of support, few youngsters, it seems, are playing badminton for more than fun.
Another benefit of the league, Liu believes, would be to offer financial rewards to the many top quality badminton players who fail to make it into the national team — several of whom have defected to other countries in recent years.
“A badminton player has very little chance to succeed unless he can make it into the national team,” Liu said.
“Who is going to do this if they are unable to make a living after decades of intensive training?”
The shortage of young talent has already had the sometimes acerbic Li complaining about the poor quality of new recruits to the national team.
“They have no distinguishing techniques, no will to fight and not even the vitality of youth,” he said.