China likely to dominate

Badminton's first association with the Olympics was in Munich way back in 1972. It was a demonstration sport at that time.

PRAKASH PADUKONE

China's Lin Dan has won six titles in the last 10 months, including the All England. His main opposition will be from his own countrymen in Athens. — Pic. AFP-

I AM sometimes asked if I regret not playing in the Olympics. I do have some regrets, but I don't feel too bad about it. I would have played, but it wasn't an Olympic sport then. One has to be practical, and there is no point in wishing for such unattainable things. Similarly, there are many things about sport that one could have regrets about, like the lesser prize money in the game back then — but we enjoyed many aspects of the game at that time.

Badminton's first association with the Olympics was in Munich way back in 1972. It was a demonstration sport at that time. I had won my first senior National title that year, but Suresh Goel was selected to represent India, probably because he was more experienced and they needed representatives of different styles of play.

For some reason, badminton made its next Olympics appearance only 16 years after, at Seoul, again as a demonstration sport. Finally, four years later at Barcelona, it became a medal sport. Allan Budi Kusuma and Susi Susanti, both of Indonesia, won the singles events.

Poul-Erik Hoyer-Larsen of Denmark and Korea's Bang Soo Hyun won the singles gold at Atlanta '96, while China's Ji Xingpeng and Gong Zhichao were the winners at Sydney 2000.

Athens 2004

Ha Taek Won and Kim Dong Moon of Korea may land the doubles gold. — Pic. IAN WALTON/GETTY IMAGES-

For Athens 2004, it is difficult to predict the ultimate winners. I would rate China favourites for the singles, but it is tough to decide who among them could eventually come through. There are at least six contenders in men's singles and four pairs in doubles.

China's Lin Dan has won six titles in the last 10 months, including the All England, while countrymen Chen Hong, Bao Chunlai and Xia Xuanze are all expected to do well. The other top contenders are Denmark's Peter Gade — winner of the recent European Championships and All England finalist — and Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei, winner of Malaysia Open.

The women's singles is also likely to be dominated by China. Gong Ruina, Zhou Mi, Zhang Ning and Xie Xingfang are a cut above the rest; the likely challengers are Holland's Mia Audina, South Korea's Jun Jae Youn and Denmark's Camilla Martin.

Korea will be a force to reckon with in the paired events, with Ha Taek Won/Kim Dong Moon in the men's doubles, and Kim Dong Moon and Ra Kyu Min in the mixed being clear favourites. In fact, the mixed doubles pair has won 14 titles since April 2003, without a single loss!

Heading the challenge in the women's doubles will be Gao Ling and Sui Huang of China, but they will have to contend with Korea's Ra Kyung Min and Lee Kyung Won.

At a rough estimate, it looks like China could win three golds and South Korea the remaining two.

Where does this leave Indonesia who once dominated the World badminton scene? In a way Athens will confirm whether the Indonesian downslide has already began. Just a couple of months back they had surrendered the prestigious Thomas Cup, symbol of supremacy in World Team badminton, and that too in front of their home crowd. If Indonesians return from Athens without a gold, it will surely mark the end of an era. Their best chance of a gold is in men's doubles, an event that they have dominated for decades. Their doubles strength has also been their mainstay in many a Thomas Cup victory. However of late many other countries have caught up with them and they no longer enjoy the advantage of starting the event as clear favourites.

The other contenders for a medal apart from the above three will be Denmark & Malaysia. The Danes stand a good chance of doing well in the men's doubles and mixed doubles, whereas Malaysians will have to depend on their men's players for a medal as their women's team is not strong enough to pose a challenge for the mighty Chinese.

If past performance in the Olympics is any indication, then experience might play an important role in deciding the winner. This is because of the scale of the event and the magnitude of the pressure. Also, all the previous winners in the men's single have been dark horses, without the weight of expectation on their shoulders. Another interesting fact is that most gold medallists in the men's singles have not done well after their Olympic victory.

This Olympics could also mean the end of the road for several top players. Denmark's Camilla Martin, for instance, has already announced that this is her last competition. The Chinese are known to retire their senior players even after creditable performances, to make room for the next crop. It will be interesting to see if players like Xia Xuanze and Gong Ruina are retained after the Olympics.

India's chances

India's best chance of getting a medal was when Pullela Gopi Chand was at his peak, in Sydney 2000. But he ran into eventual finalist Hendrawan of Indonesia in the quarterfinals. It is difficult to expect any medals this time; one can hope for a good performance from Aparna Popat and Abhinn Shyam Gupta, the two players who have qualified in the women's singles and men's singles events respectively. Aparna in particular could create an upset or two.

Growth of the game

Aparna Popat could create an upset or two. — Pic. P. V. SIVAKUMAR-

The game has grown worldwide after its introduction in the Olympics. Most nations get enhanced grants from their governments if the sport is included in the Olympics, hence the associations are able to spend more on its development.

Countries in Europe, particularly, are dependent on government aid rather than private sponsors, and for them it has made a big difference. Germany, Holland, England, France, etc. have benefited greatly after badminton became an Olympic sport.

The increased funding, popularity and visibility have raised the standard of the game worldwide, even though the top five countries — China, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and Denmark — have remained the same. But over the last few years, Thailand, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and Holland have reduced the gap.

All England and Olympics

Although badminton in Olympics is relatively recent, it has become the most prestigious event. It is a 7-star tournament, and the absence of prize money is certainly no deterrent. Most people still consider All England as the ultimate prize in badminton, but I would rate an Olympic gold higher because of the scale of the event. The All England is much smaller, although the competition is tougher.

The Olympics ensures wider participation because it restricts each country's entries to four. In Open events like the All England, the top countries come with large contingents, and weaker nations do not event figure in the main draw. The Olympics thus gives an opportunity for players from weaker badminton-playing nations to compete on the same stage.