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LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 02: Xuerui Li of China returns a shot against Pui Yin Yip of Hong Kong, China in their Women's Singles Badminton quarter final on day 6 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Wembley Arena on August 2, 2012 in London, England.
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Xuerui Li of China returns a shot

Source: Chris McGrath/Getty

London 2012 Olympic Games

Badminton’s global ascent

The Thrill of Badminton (No, Really)

Why you should care

Because one of the world’s most popular sports is about far more than just watching the birdie.

This editor’s pick first flew on October 19, 2013.

Approximately 200 million people play badminton worldwide, making it the world’s fifth most popular sport (though some insist that badminton is actually likely to be the world’s second most popular sport, bested only by soccer).

Though the history is a bit fuzzy, the rules for the present day game of badminton seem to have first been drawn up at the Duke of Beaufort’s Badminton Estate in Gloucestershire one idle summer afternoon in 1873. Despite the game’s long history—some forms of involving a racquet with the object of keeping a shuttlecock-like object off the ground date back to ancient China and Greece, and British soldier seem to have picked up something similar while stationed in India much earlier in the nineteenth century—it continues to be associated in much of the United States and Europe with that upper-class British Victorian image: genteel, dainty, probably oppressive of women, and by no means a serious athletic pursuit.

Badminton v. Tennis

  • • Average length of a match: 1 hour and 16 minutes v. 3 hours and 18 minutes
  • • Average number of shots per rally: 13.5 v. 3.4
  • • Average distance covered during a match: 4 miles v. 2 miles
  • • Fastest recorded shot: 206 mph v. 163.4 mph

Get in the game

The noble shuttlecock

Source: Siri Stafford/Getty

Not so in China, India, Malaysia, Scandinavia, and the dozens of other countries where badminton is celebrated as the world’s ‘fastest racquet sport’ (though table tennis fans might justly protest that label), one requiring considerable agility, reflexes, and aerobic capacity. As badminton supporters like to point out, the fastest recorded shuttlecock traveled considerably faster than the fastest recorded tennis ball, and professional badminton players are likely to run twice as far as tennis players over the course of a match, despite their smaller court. Furthermore, badminton is a game not just of brute strength, but of anticipation and cunning. ‘Deception’ is a critical technique in badminton; since a shuttlecock decelerates much faster than a tennis ball, there are greater opportunities for throwing one’s opponent off rhythm and for manipulating the shuttle’s spin and direction. So, for example, the advantage enjoyed by the server in tennis does not carry over to badminton, and a match between two top players is nimble, explosive, and difficult to anticipate.

The finest shuttlecocks in the world are made from the feathers of a goose’s left wing. Left wings are used because wing feathers are angled, ensuring a consistency to the shuttle’s spin.

What’s holding badminton back, then, from becoming a more global phenomenon, despite being introduced to that largest of world sports stages, the Olympics, in 1992? Besides those mental images of petticoats, there is the present reality of the sport’s tournaments: cold venues with poor lighting, long days, little entertainment. Perhaps even more so, though, the sport has held itself back through the continued predetermination of match outcomes, typically via a total lack of effort on the part of one player or team—a practice that some would call cheating.

Professional badminton players earn far less than their tennis counterparts. In 2011, tournament earnings topped out at $267,350 (earned by Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei).

Indeed, despite boasting strong attendance and enthusiastic fans, badminton got the most coverage during the London Olympics when eight female players were disqualified for ‘unsportsmanlike’ behavior. Having determined that they could nab more favorable tournament positions by losing some of their early rounds, women’s doubles teams from South Korea, Indonesia, and two from China sent meek serves into the net and returned shots out of bounds in attempts to do anything but win. China brazenly stood by the strategy as a sensible way for top players to conserve energy, but the continued cries for change from the international badminton community may lead to rule adjustments in the future that would discourage such fixing.

Considering the undeniable thrill of watching top players slice, stroke, and spin their way through a match, badminton still has potential to nab that Western audience. Who knows—maybe one day we’ll even encourage our kids to pick up a racquet and shuttlecock in hopes garnering an Ivy League scholarship.

Cover Image: Michael Zemanek/Corbis

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