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Why Asia loves the low-key but rising sport of badminton

Japan is tipped to challenge other Asian countries for top Olympic medals

KUALA LUMPUR -- The retirement of Lee Chong Wei from the badminton court in June 2019 made front page news in Malaysia and elsewhere in Asia. The three-time Olympic silver medalist had long been the country's biggest sports star but was just one of a number of Asian players who have dominated the sport.

A racket sport in which a feathered ball known as a shuttlecock is hit over a high net, the game has a relatively low profile in the West, where it receives little media coverage and is often regarded as a casual pastime for the beach or the backyard.

But the sport is hugely popular in Asia, a fact reflected in the number of people who play the game and the continent's domination of international competition. That popularity was underscored by the huge media reaction across the region to a serious car accident in Malaysia on Jan. 13 that injured Japanese badminton star Kento Momota, the world's No. 1 ranked player. As for Asia's domination of the sport, few expect that to change at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, where Japan, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea and India are all hoping for medals.

History suggests that the region has a good chance of continued success. Since the sport was introduced as an Olympic event in Barcelona in 1992 only six of 44 medals awarded in the men's and women's singles competitions have gone to non-Asian athletes. And at the 2019 Badminton World Championships held in Switzerland, all but one of the 20 medals on offer went to Asia.

Such success helps the game at all levels in the continent. "We all want to be involved in something we are good at," said Michelle Chai, former general manager of the Badminton Association of Malaysia. "Badminton is a sport that Asia has done well in at the international and world level, and this is a huge reason why the game is extremely popular."

The dominance of Asia's badminton players at the top level helps to inspire others to pick up a racket, which in turn creates a healthy playing base. According to a 2018 survey carried out by the BAM one in eight Malaysians play more badminton than soccer, which is usually regarded as the nation's favorite game. "It is the most participated sport in the country," said Chai, who puts badminton's popularity down to two factors: "Our success ... and the ease with which you can play the game."

"Badminton requires little space and is an economically friendly sport," said Haresh Deol, co-founder of Twentytwo13, a Kuala Lumpur-based news site. "All you need is a racket and a shuttlecock, and even without the net, two players can already play a simplified version of the sport, which is common in many neighborhoods in Malaysia."

The sport's accessibility and simplicity appeals across the region. Head to the riverside in most East Asian cities, or find a cool spot in Southeast or South Asia and you have a higher chance of seeing locals hitting a shuttlecock than kicking a ball. The financial rewards can be significant, too. In 2018, India's P.V. Sindhu earned $5.5 million, making her the second highest-earning female sportswoman in the world outside tennis.

China has a reported 100 million players and has won 41 Olympic medals in all five badminton categories -- men's and women's singles and doubles, and mixed doubles -- giving it more medals than the next two most successful nations, Indonesia and South Korea, combined. In India badminton has been second only to cricket in terms of participation since 2012.

Europe struggles to compete with such enthusiasm. Even in Denmark, the Continent's most successful badminton nation, the number of players has halved in the past three decades to around 100,000. Former Danish Olympic gold medalist Morten Frost attributes this to a lack of prize money and sponsorship in the European game, in sharp contrast to Asia.

"What can also help is prize money coming into the game so players or young people, when they are choosing, they can say 'maybe there is a future in badminton,''' Frost said. "You need a qualification, you need a job, to survive [in Europe] after badminton. Whereas in Asia it is a completely different ballgame."

More money in the sport translates into more professional pathways, more opportunities to play, more coaches and more facilities. In 2012, Badminton World Federation President Poul-Erik Hoyer Larsen estimated that Chinese players achieve 10,000 hours of play and practice by the time they are 19 or 20 -- four years ahead of European rivals.

This helps to make heroes such as Lee Chong Wei. A 2018 movie based on his life stayed more than six weeks in Malaysia's top 10 films and was shown at 8,000 theaters in China.

 "Chong Wei is special because he is hardworking, fueled by determination and is always eager to raise the bar," said Deol. "It's a shame that despite being almost perfect, he ends his career without an Olympic gold medal or a world championship title. But throughout his 19 years in the sport, he has won the hearts of Malaysians and even united [ethnically and politically divided] Malaysians."

Lee's gold medal dream was denied three times by Chinese players, including twice by Lin Dan, a two-time Olympic champion and five-time world champion whose ongoing rivalry with Lee dominated the men's sport for years.

Japan is also a rising badminton power and is tipped by many experts to mount a strong challenge for medals in Tokyo. "I think Japan has shown great effort in the last couple of years, increasingly doing well in all five categories ...  and I will say they are the top nation," said Hoyer Larsen. "It will be interesting to see if any other traditional countries like China, Malaysia and Indonesia will qualify and win the gold medals."

Whether Japan takes center spot on the Olympic podium or not, it looks almost certain that Asia will once again dominate one of its favorite sports.

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