Badminton: The art of shuttlecock diplomacy

Badminton: Steve Baddeley must develop a fresh image for the sport if England is to challenge the world's best
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The Independent Online
THINK BADMINTON. And what do you think of? A game played in a village hall, tip-tap, tip-tap? Or do you perhaps recall the recent occasions when the game has earned coverage in the popular press - Jo Muggeridge pouring a can of Coke over the head of her national coach after being left out of the England squad? Or, earlier this month, the impromptu cricket game played with brooms and cleaning equipment in a toilet at the Dutch Open by two lively-and-emotional English players who have subsequently been suspended? Somewhere in the middle is the kind of image with which the Badminton Association of England would prefer the sport to be associated - 11 medals won at last September's Commonwealth Games, with three golden ones going to doubles specialist Jo Goode.

Steve Baddeley, over whose head that can of Coke was notoriously tipped, would rather the controversial incidents had not occurred. But the man who has filled the role as the Association's chief executive for the last two years is happy to acknowledge that the adverse publicity was not all bad. At least it got the game noticed.

Badminton is a hugely popular domestic sport, played by an estimated 5 million people in England, of whom 55,000 are affiliated with the national association.

But, paradoxically, this widespread appeal hampers the game in its efforts to promote itself at elite level. The popular image still tends to be one of a soft pit-a-pat affair played by those no longer hale or hearty enough to hit a ball. As he seeks to raise the nation's game at world level, Baddeley has his work cut out.

Now 37, he was one of the players who brought his country notable success during an era which began with the women's doubles victory achieved by Nora Perry and Jane Webster at the 1980 world championships - England's only world title to date.

Commonwealth champion in 1986, and European champion four years later, he established a position in the world rankings that was both respectable and - in terms of ensuring his availability to commentate on the later stages of competition for the broadcasting television station - reliable.

"I was perfect for TV," he said with a grin. "I was guaranteed to be at all the big events, and I was almost always out before the semi-finals." Baddeley's position at or around No 6 in the world corresponds to that occupied by England now. His ambition of edging them further up the order is, clearly, a long-term one.

The upwardly mobile aspirations were set clearly in context at the Stevenage Arts and Leisure Centre on Saturday night as a youthful Chinese team concluded their week-long series of internationals with a clean sweep to finish 5-1 winners.

Almost every one of the visiting players who had whistle-stopped their way by bus from Gateshead to Grantham to Portsmouth to St Austell to Weston- super-Mare on the five previous days was under 20. China's Olympic prospects, it was reasonable to conclude, were looking extremely healthy.

The tourists' team leader, Ren Chunhui, an amiable court-side presence, confirmed the prognosis. "Yes," he said. "We prepare for the Olympics step-by-step, and these players will be ready for the 2004 Games." 2004. Not the next Games, in 2000, then? He considered the group of youngsters who sat watching the action and shouting out the occasional encouragement to their colleagues on court, appearing to scan every face. "I don't think so," he said with a smile. "Too young."

Later in the evening, Goode, who played the women's doubles with 21-year- old Gail Emms in the absence of her regular partner, Donna Kellogg, emphasised the demanding nature of England's current ambitions. "We always have a few good players around, but it is going to be a long term project before we can compete on level terms with the top nations." Nodding towards the visiting group, she added: "They've just got so many to choose from." The tour of England, completed annually since 1993, gives China's up-and- coming players the opportunity to increase their international experience before graduating to the big events. Their hosts would love to be able to afford such a luxury.

But, as with so many domestic sports, National Lottery funding is beginning to establish ambitions at a higher, more stable level.

As author of the eight-year plan which has generated pounds 1.3m of funding from the Lottery this year, Baddeley knows the sport has to reach certain targets to maintain the flow of cash.

By 2005, the aim is to win a medal in every discipline at the world championships. A tall order, especially when one considers that not one English player reached the last eight at last year's world championships.

But at least the money is going in the right direction.

Baddeley's annual budget when he took up his current position was pounds 100,000. Last year, thanks to the Lottery, it was just under pounds 1m. And another pounds 4.2m of Lottery funds have been allocated to transform the training centre at the Association's home base in Milton Keynes into a state-of-the-art, eight-court facility.

It will be a good start. But in China, where badminton stands just behind football and basketball in terms of national popularity, a power base is already in existence which England will never be likely to match. Six regional centres were established as far back as 1953. Now, each of the 22 Chinese provinces has a centre - each one of which is larger than the proposed project in Milton Keynes.

For all that, the presence of Goode, and other high-achievers such as the reigning European champions in the men's doubles, Simon Archer and Chris Hunt, offer high hopes for the immediate future.

"At school, any boys who played badminton were seen as wets," Goode recalled. "That is the image we have to change." Baddeley has already got wet in service of his sport. Coke doesn't do a lot for suits - but at least the Association paid for his to be cleaned.