Badminton: Malaysia gain vengeance

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The Independent Online
IT WOULD be trite to say that badminton has become the lightning conductor for Britain's imperial past in Malaysia, but a whiff of friction hung over the courts at the Cheras stadium in Kuala Lumpur yesterday which had nothing to do with the controversial air-conditioning system. Malaysia and England have habitually turned the badminton tournament at the Commonwealth Games into confidential business.

By right, England win the team event - no one else had done so since 1978 - and Malaysia retaliate with gold in the men's singles. But Malaysia wanted a golden return on their investment in these Games and badminton is their national sport. So the traditional format of the mixed team event, which emphasised England's relative strength in the women's events, was discarded in favour of separate events for men and women. As the president of the Malaysian Badminton Federation doubles up as the defence minister, no one felt inclined to cry "fix".

Yesterday, the Malaysians duly gained revenge for decades of injustice by taking the gold in the men's event, while it was left for the women to uphold England's honour with an equalising gold. That the two events were staged on courts alongside each other and were played to a peculiar round robin format rather than a straight knockout in the final stages only added to the confusion of a sweet and sour day.

Until the flag of St George was raised to the rafters accompanied by Land of Hope and Glory, no one seemed quite certain about the destiny of the women's gold. It was left largely to the second doubles pairing of Joanne Davies, four days after her 26th birthday, and Sara Sankey, two weeks shy of her 31st, to work it out for themselves. They did so in some style, annihilating their Indian opponents in 32 minutes for the loss of just seven points.

A complicated countback system ensured England of gold ahead of Malaysia, who were thrashing Australia on a neighbouring court, and rendered the final singles, lost by Rebecca Pantaney, eerily redundant. Though no one in the England camp cared to complain too vociferously, the tournament deserved a cleaner-cut finish.

England completed a unique double by losing their last tie, their only defeat of the tournament, and still winning gold. The sadness for them was that the celebration of overall victory was lost in the instant of a disappointing defeat. "We wanted to run onto the court and hug each other, but it didn't seem right when we'd lost," Sankey said. "We'll leave our celebrations till tonight." Heads might be clearer then.

Neither did the mood of depression in the men's ranks encourage delirium. Two defeats on the final day, by India before lunch and Malaysia at tea- time, relegated the defending team champions to an ignominious bronze. The psychological warfare waged on the hosts by Park Joo Bong, Korean coach of the team, backfired spectacularly.

After parrying an attempt by the home team to turn off the air conditioning inside the Cheras stadium, Park had vociferously and unwisely championed the ability of England to upset the clear favourites in the final stages.

If Pack thought that might instill some confidence into his team, he was rudely shaken. Only the doubles pairing of the Robertsons, Nathan and Julian, no relation, had the mental strength to offer any more than token resistance to the irresistible combination of the Malaysians on court and their raucous beflagged supporters in the stands.