Badminton no longer a smashing success with SEA powers' youth

While Lee Chong Wei has earned fame for himself and Malaysia at the world stage, the country has not seen another young player rising to prominence. It is a predicament faced by neighbours Thailand and Indonesia.
While Lee Chong Wei has earned fame for himself and Malaysia at the world stage, the country has not seen another young player rising to prominence. It is a predicament faced by neighbours Thailand and Indonesia.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

BORN in Perak 32 years ago, Lee Chong Wei was faced with a career choice early in his life: Either pour his heart and soul into badminton or focus on his studies.

The Malaysian chose the former. He completed the Upper Secondary level at the Bukit Jalil Sports School before putting all his energy into badminton.

His decision paid off. After joining the national squad when he was 17, he became a two-time Olympic silver medallist and is the only Malaysian shuttler to hold the world No. 1 ranking for more than a year.

It has been 21 years since Lee first picked up the racket at age 11. But even as he winds down his career, no one in Malaysia is ready to fill his sizeable shoes - a worrying trend for a country that used to produce Asian champions such as the Sidek brothers in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Aside from Lee, who recently returned from an eight-month drug suspension, there are only two Malaysian men's singles players in the world top 50 - veteran Chong Wei Feng, who won the gold at the just-concluded SEA Games in Singapore, and rising talent Zulfadli Zulkiffli.

As Malaysia's SEA Games 2015 chef de mission Norza Zakaria revealed: "We are working on a post-Lee era... to replace him is very difficult. A lot of work needs to be done at the singles level."

Former Danish great Morten Frost, now the technical director of the Badminton Association of Malaysia, added: "We currently do not have any young singles players to fill the big shoes of Lee and Chong Wei Feng."

Malaysia's struggle highlights an ongoing trend in South-east Asia - once a hotbed of badminton talent, it now struggles to convince its youth to pursue a career in the sport.

Regional badminton powerhouses Indonesia and Thailand are also facing this predicament.

Indonesia could boast Olympic, world and Asian champions in the men's singles as recently as 2005, when the likes of Taufik Hidayat, Sony Dwi Kuncoro and Hendrawan competed with the best from top badminton nation China.

However, just like Malaysia, they are also suffering from a talent drought, with only seven top 100 shuttlers in the world rankings, and Tommy Sugiarto as their representative in the top 20.

As Taufik, chef de mission of Indonesia at the recent SEA Games, said: "There are not many junior players climbing up the ranks. There are many young talents but not many are willing to commit fully."

It is the same situation in Thailand, even though the kingdom can boast 20-year-old former women's world champion Ratchanok Intanon, who also helped the women's team clinch gold at the recent SEA Games.

Ratchanok, however, is an isolated success story. Thai badminton head coach Sompol Kookasemkit said: "Ratchanok is treated as an idol in Thailand and many have taken up badminton due to her, but not many continue to play the sport professionally."

The climate for pursuing excellence in the sport has also been anything but conducive, as prize money in the top tournaments lags behind that of other professional sports like golf or tennis.

It is perhaps telling that Indonesia's badminton team manager at the SEA Games, Luis Pongoh, said: "I myself was a badminton player.

"I have four sons but I do not want them to play this sport competitively in the long run.

"Parents these days do not care much for badminton as a way to success for their kids. There are better prospects for them if they do well in their studies."

Ahmad Shapawi Ismail, director general of the National Sports Council of Malaysia, agreed: "There is a big gap between the seasoned athletes and the young players now.

"The education system, the Internet and other social factors have caused them to lose a clear focus. We are struggling to get the young players to rise up fast."

Still, badminton remains a huge draw for sports fans who have grown up cheering for the Sideks, Taufik or even Thai veteran Boonsak Ponsana.

And the countries are continuing to provide plenty of opportunities for their young players to shine.

Rita Subowo, president of the National Olympic Council of Indonesia, pointed out that her country fielded junior shuttlers at the SEA Games, adding with satisfaction: "They have performed well, topping the badminton medal table (of three golds)."

She can only hope that their recent success will spur others to also want to be a hero or heroine to millions.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2015, with the headline 'Badminton no longer a smashing success with SEA powers' youth'. Subscribe