Tale of two continents as Poul-Erik H°yer unveils his vision for badminton
Sunday, 12 May 2013
Share on facebook Share on twitter Share on email More Sharing Services 4
By James Crook
Badminton is a sport which uniquely has its roots in two continents. Its beginnings can be traced to mid-18th century in India, where it was created by British military officers stationed there.
The sport owes its name to Badminton House in Gloucestershire, owned by the Duke of Beaufort - although it is unclear why - and for most of its early existence it was a sport with its centre firmly in Europe.
When the International Badminton Federation - the forerunner to the current World Badminton Federation (BWF) - was formed in 1934 seven of the founding nations were from Europe. But the introduction of the sport onto the Olympic programme at Barcelona in 1992 has seen the sport's popularity in Asia explode.
Since it made its debut of the 29 Olympic gold medals available, an incredible 28 have been won by players from Asian countries, with 16 of them going to China and six each to Indonesia and South Korea. The one gold medal that Asia has missed out in 20 years was the men's singles at Atlanta in 1996, which was won by Denmark's Poul-Erik H°yer, who beat China's Dong Jiong in the final.
That historic moment makes H°yer uniquely qualified to become the new President of the BWF when the election takes place at the Annual General Meeting in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday (May 18). He has emerged as the clear favourite in the two-horse race to suceed Dr. Kang Young Joong of South Korea - who last December announced his decision not to seek a third term in office - after a record 52 countries officially seconded his candidature in March who see him as the man to help bring Europe and Asia together for the good of the sport.
Poul-Erik H°yer's proudest moment as a player came when he became the first-and still only- European player to win Olympic gold
H°yer's only rival is Indonesia's Justian Suhandinata, a former vice-president of the International Badminton Federation before it was rebranded the BWF, after Malaysia's Dato Sri Mohd Nadzmi Mohd Salleh withdrew. Suhandinata claims on his website to have the support of 22 countries, including, perhaps significantly, China, although H°yer has held informal discussions with officials there.
"What we are trying to do is focus very much on global thinking, so my approach has been towards all continents and confederations and all Presidents, having a good talk with all continents," says the 47-year-old Dane, who has been President of Badminton Europe since 2010. "So I think that is one of the reasons - that I've actually tried to reach out to all corners and also in the sense of being able to get Europe behind my candidature has been very important in that sense.
"Other than that, I would say that I do hope I can contribute and give also my side of it, which is from the players side, bringing some new things to the table and maybe also understand a bit more from the side of the players, which I think is very important for the future because if we don't have the players, we don't have a Badminton World Federation."
Badminton Europe President Poul-Erik H°yer looks a certainty for the BWF Presidency
The BWF has become increasingly Asia-centric in the past couple of decades, moving their headquarters from Cheltenham in England to Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur in 2005 and electing three successive Asian Presidents since 1993. But the three-time European Champion H°yer-Larsen believes that Europe and Asia are working towards the same aims in terms of the development of the sport - but it will be a long, long time before the sport even gets close to matching its popularity in Asia in H°yer's current European jurisdiction.
"I definitely do believe that whether you are Asian or European you want to develop badminton as well as possible. You want to see progress, you want to see a high level of sports and this is a competition against other sports, so you have to be ambitious in your own sport, you have to drive it so that you are getting maybe even a higher position, getting more attention, getting more interest. I think that is both from the Asian point of view and the European view, so I don't think there is such a big difference.
"To be honest, I think Asia is doing really well and also if you look at the numbers of people - China 1.3 billion, Indonesia 256 million, India more than one billion - that's a huge possibility to grow badminton and to develop badminton and to get skilful players, where Europe maybe is lacking in terms of providing a large number [of players] into the game and then to develop.
"So in that sense, I think the structure, particularly in China, has improved a lot and they are doing really well. We have to look upon how we should compete with that, which is difficult. We can see that we are lacking, there are not so many Europeans left in this tournament. We were happy to have a silver medal and two bronze medals for Europe at the Olympic Games [in London 2012], so we are behind and in my mind we will still be behind for a long time because I believe that what I can see is badminton taking up speed in Asia, so we need to do something extraordinary in Europe to follow the pace that the Asians have"
H°yer labelled the debacle which led to four women's doubles partners being disqualified at London 2012 as "embarrassing"
For the majority of the world, the badminton tournament at London 2012 will be most remembered for the match-fixing scandal which led to four women's doubles teams from China, Indonesia and two from South Korea were disqualified for deliberately trying to lose their ties in order to gain an easier draw in the next round. The disgraceful scenes that unravelled at Wembley Arena at last Summer's Games even put a question mark over the sport's future in the Olympics.
But, thanks to the likes of Sir Craig Reedie, President of the International Badminton Federation between 1981 and 1984, who is now an influential vice-president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), any threat was nullified. H°yer, though, knows that the sport cannot afford any more scandals like that in the future.
"I definitely believe that going back to London, it was a big crisis, we really were struggling how to cope with that on the day when it happened, and a lot of spectators were unhappy at watching four ladies doubles pairs not playing to win, but playing to lose deliberately," he admits. "It was a very odd situation to be in, and I was there as well watching these matches and I felt really embarrassed.
"Looking back, having disqualified the four pairs, I think it was the right decision and I think actually that we gained some respect by doing it. They had to do it, and actually in the long term, got some credibility out of the action points that we were taking on the day that it happened.
"So I think that we are looking behind and learning, and I also believe that the BWF, as a governing body, must learn something from this so it will prevent it from happening again, and we should learn from it so that every situation will be fair play; that was the expectation of [Baron Pierre] de Coubertin when he was writing the Modern Olympics, that fair play is one of the main issues, and what we saw was not fair play."
H°yer believes that lessons have been learnt from London 2012
So what does H°yer plan to do to maintain the integrity of the sport should he be elected as President of the BWF?
"Definitely one thing we should learn is not having a draw that we can predict before we are playing; 'If I'm losing, I will play that opponent and that's much better for me so I can lose' and we can prevent that from happening," he says. "You could make the draw from a bowl so that nobody knows until the name comes out, so I do believe that we can see some good things come out of this.
"When I saw the attention from the media about badminton disqualifying the players at the Olympics, I really felt, 'Okay, this is a situation that we have to take seriously' and in that sense I did have some concerns at once. I hoped that we would not be in the pool of sports being discussed in February, and luckily when I saw the sports that were discussed, badminton was not one of them. I do see that maybe we can do better than we did at the Olympics in 2012, and that is what we should achieve."
Moving forward, H°yer explained the vision that has gained him such vast support from his peers in the race for Presidency of the BWF, focusing primarily on improving the game from the grass-roots and ensuring that badminton is a truly global sport.
"My general thought is that looking at the world of badminton, there is a huge difference between countries and first of all, my aim is to encourage the 'Shuttle Time' schools badminton programme because what I see is that we can gain a lot of interest from schoolchildren," he says. "Having said that, we also need to be sure and make sure that our countries are able to cope with the interest coming from the schools so that if a young person would like to play a bit more or join a club, that we have the facilities.
The BWF's "Shuttle Time" schools project is something H°yer hopes to build on should he become President
"For example, in Africa, there is definitely a need to build halls. Badminton is of a great interest, but a lot of players are only allowed to play once a week so they will never be able to develop on a high level and I think that Africa is a continent that we can see progress in.
"So we have to understand that there are less-developed countries and I want to address that. We need as a governing body to really step up and try to help organise in that sense, and that should be through the continental confederations, which is very important as they know which areas that can really favour us, having a set-up where we can produce skilful players.
"That's what I want to bring to the table, to strive harder on the development side, saying, well, all Olympic grants that we are gaining should be put in to develop our sport and that will make a huge change. We can do it now because financially we are doing quite well, we are earning money so it is possible for us to focus on development."
If Poul-Erik H°yer's name is on the door of the Presidential office at the conclusion of the election then it will leave Denmark as the sport's leading naton when it comes to the sport's administration. With another Dane, Thomas Lund, already serving as BWF secretary general, this would give the Scandinavian country, and Europe as a continent, a vast influence in a sport that enjoys much of its power-base in Asia, particularly China.
Poul-Erik H°yer will learn the fate of his BWF Presidency campaign next Saturday (May 18) in Kuala Lumpur
The question following the announcement will undoubtedly be one of whether Asia and Europe are really pulling in the same direction here, or whether the new European power-shift will provide another shake-up to a sport that could probably do with a degree of stability after such a turbulent period.
In H°yer, however, I cannot help but feel that badminton has the man that will help restore the sport's reputation. His experience, as both a top player and administrator, as well as his clear passion to turn the game into a global sport, will do wonders to secure the future of the sport in the Olympic programme, as well as ensure that players from all over the world are enabled to hone their skills and maintain as passionate about the sport as he has proven to be.
With the BWF's SuperSeries really taking off and expanding even further, offering the opportunity for big cash prizes as well as high prestige to players and the opportunity for fans across the world to see some of the top players compete live, the foundations have been laid by Dr. Kang and his predecessors. I have little doubt that a man as knowledgeable, committed and in love with the game as H°yer will do anything but build upon these when he inevitably takes over at the helm.
James Crook is a reporter for insidethegames. To follow him on Twitter click here.