Regaining Badminton supremacy: Chinese whispers that doesn’t get lost in transmission

Some narrations on Chinese badminton acquire mythical contours. Like Chen Yufei actually pre-lived the entire Tokyo Olympics gold simulation in the months before the Games – from taking a similar bus to the stadium, timing that journey to the last microsecond, recreating the warmup, the different opponents, right upto standing on the top podium. Apparently Chinese badminton xeroxed in real (or 3D printed), the whole scenery – and the sentinel opponents she would possibly run into who could stop her.

There’s no way of knowing if all of it – or some – was really done. But this week, Chinese Badminton Association’s president Zhang Jun did tell as quoted by Xinhua’s Shi Futian that Team China did establish a training base during the pandemic years, in Thailand. This was done to minimize the impact of cancellations, postponements which enabled them to play 14 international tournaments in a row.

There are apocryphal tales on how Shi Yuqi was disciplined for defiance, on their winter training base with a hotel called Badminton where players live with hermit-like focus solely on the sport. And on how China swapped sponsorship deals for their national team – from homegrown Li Ning to Japanese Yonex, in what was a stunning coup.

But the one story, with the script and screenplay all in cohesion, that’s emerging from the powerhouse is their assertion that is chilling in its ambition: China’s wish to return to absolute dominance. Zhang told Xinhua: “International badminton is very competitive now. There are many great players from other associations. But for us, the goal remains the same — to win all five golds in Paris.”

Of course every country aspires to all five available gold – two singles and three doubles – and nothing wrong in it, if it can be pulled off. China’s sweep of the World Tour Finals in doubles with three gold, was the earliest statement of intent, and none in the world will wave it off as an empty assertion. The Chinese dynasty tended to dominate badminton till a decade ago. Though if you started watching badminton only in the last ten years, you wouldn’t quite know what domineering strangleholds on golds meant then, and is coveted now.

The India Open Super 750 starting next week is expected to attract the cream of the world’s top talent. But it’s the new-age Chinese, arriving in Delhi, who will be the source of curiosity as they take their first calculated steps towards Paris qualification.

To be sure, these are not the inert, insular non-mingling Chinese of old – those that swatted away opponents and didn’t feel the need to talk about their games. A bunch of them have been doing their media commitments in English, they smile and emote a lot more on court (even if shoving a foot blister onto the camera gets Shi Yuqi banned for a considerable period). And they pen down their thoughts on social media often. Chen Yufei’s most recent: “There’s still a long way to go. I want to congratulate all the Chinese players who made their breakthrough this year, which proved that all of our hard work has paid off. We will try harder to reclaim glory in the future.”

A trailer of this reclaiming glory-business is what will be on show at the IG Stadium. The last time a Chinese contingent of this calibre (stronger rather) was seen in India was the 2009 World Championships in Hyderabad – with Lin Dan and Lu Lan winning the singles. Chen Jin and Xie Xingfang won silvers too. Of the 10 finalists, 7 were Chinese with all-China finals in both singles and women’s doubles.

That kind of supremacy belongs to what now seems like an ancient era, for winning is far more democratised now, with winners from Spain and India and Japan emerging. But China’s transitional cycle over the last 8-9 years seems to be peaking in time for Paris. And while there’s no dearth of contenders equipped to stop the Chinese, Tokyo and Chen Yufei proved that cometh the hour, the Chinese can micro-plot every step of their success.

For out of nowhere came the Chinese men’s doubles pair Liu Yuchen and Ou Xuanyi, a pair of 28-year-olds, to snatch the World Tour Finals gold. Yuchen was a silver medallist at Tokyo alright. But combining to win the Indonesia title, coming off the reserve list, then making five finals – winning three, beating the Daddies at World Tour Finals and entering Top 10 in one frenzied season, is the sort of stratospheric rocket rise that China is associated with – where players suddenly take off, after training quietly domestically ofcourse, and get themselves into Olympic contention very swiftly.

China’s men’s singles challenge is still too thin. But after finishing his 10 months in more practice, and a spot of penance for his “behaviour” of spotlighting his injury, that scandalised the Chinese hierarchy, Shi Yuqi is back. Watch him climb the rankings as if it’s vertical parkour. The supporting wingmen – Lu Guangzu and Zhao Jun Peng haven’t exactly set the circuit on fire, but are Top 15 nevertheless, sandwiched by Lakshya Sen at No 10 and K Srikanth at No 13 in the unfrozen Live rankings.

The three year turnaround timeline between Tokyo and Paris means Chen Yufei, that cerebral precision artist blessed with intuitive footwork and timing, remains in contention in 2024. She won bronze at the World Tour Finals with Akane Yamaguchi and Tai Tzu Ying fighting it out in the finals. But it’s not often you hear this being said about a reigning Olympic champion: “The 24-year-old has yet to become a dominant force in women’s singles on the world stage.”

A missing World Championships gold. Zhang Ning’s citadel of back to back Olympic golds. The whiff of a job not-quite-done till Paris is sealed for China. The stuff ambitions are made of.

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