Asian athletes rule Europe’s traditional sports

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Nathan Robertson and Gail Emms provided a tonic for the Great Britain team on Tuesday night. They opened their badminton mixed doubles campaign by downing a Chinese pair including Gao Ling, a double Olympic gold medallist, to the despair of a frenzied local crowd.

In spite of this pulsating win though, it is hard not to see the British pair, who play their next match tonight, as relics. Both 31, they could be among the last truly competitive European badminton players.

Much has been made at these games of the speed with which Chinese athletes have come to excel at what for them are non-traditional disciplines, such as fencing and rowing.

Badminton is a sport whose centre of gravity has already switched irreversibly to Asia. As such, it may be a window on the future for a number of sports, including cricket, whose international governing body relocated a few years ago from London to Dubai, but also the likes of shooting and weightlifting.

The growing economic power of Asia is likely to encourage the process further, especially for poorer sports for whom sponsorship can be tough to procure in their traditional heartlands.

Badminton started off as the archetypical English country house sport, so much so that it was launched in 1873 at the Duke of Beaufort’s Badminton House in Gloucestershire, in the English west country.

More recently, it migrated from country houses to country clubs, acquiring an image as a genteel, middle-class English family game.

It gained an international dimension in 1934, when the International Badminton Federation was founded. Its nine inaugural members were Canada, Denmark, England, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Scotland and Wales. It was based in Cheltenham, the epitome of English gentility.

The Asian -- in particular Chinese -- athletes who now dominate elite badminton, have changed the nature of the sport entirely. The top male players, such as Gao’s partner Zheng Bo, strut around the court like fighting cockerels, emitting guttural noises and hitting smashes at unimaginable speeds. Tuesday night’s live audience was like a boxing crowd.

In England, for all of Robertson’s poise and potency, there is still nothing remotely macho about the image of a male badminton player.

When the (now renamed) Badminton World Federation moved to Kuala Lumpur in 2005, it was simply recognising the inevitable.

Here in Beijing, the dominance of Asia has been near total. Of 40 badminton quarterfinalists, 32 – 80 per cent - are Asian. Two of the remaining eight, moreover, are a German woman called Xu Huaiwen, not a terribly common name in Cottbus or Baden Baden, and a French woman named Pi Hongyan.

The mixed doubles is something of a last redoubt for European athletes, who boast three of the top eight pairings. Nonetheless, Emms and Robertson could well go all the way to the final playing against only Asians.

Next up on Thursday evening are a South Korean pair, Lee Hyojung and Lee Yongdae, who, like Gao and Bo, are going to take a lot of beating. European badminton fans should catch the coverage if they can. They may not see the likes of it again.

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