“Someone described it to me once as a game of chess”, says CEO of Badminton Ireland David McGill as he tries to explain the intricate nature of the sport.
“You’re constantly trying to trick your opponent into going one side of the court or coming close only to fire it behind their head. To be thinking like that at that speed, it’s amazing. It’s very impressive.”
The Limerick native came on board with the organisation in 2013 in an intern role, helping with online and video content. Prior to that, his only experience with badminton came in secondary school and was naturally taken aback when he first saw badminton played at a higher level.
“I actually found a medal for a school’s badminton tournament at home, it was only a bronze, probably a participation medal. But I hadn’t really competed at the level our core membership would compete, and having tried my hand at it a few times, I think I’ll probably stay that way, it might be too late for me.
“The public perception of badminton is that it’s quite slow but my God, when you get on the court and you’re playing with people who play regularly, it’s anything but slow!”
There are currently 344 badminton clubs in Ireland, run off the backs of volunteers. Those clubs represent over 12,500 members and the number of people interested in the sport is steadily increasing, thanks in large to their schools programme which sees Badminton Ireland provide equipment and coaching to students before running tournaments between the schools at the end of the programme.
It’s a sport that encompasses all ages and abilities and that diverse range is what attracts the growing number of members to badminton, according to McGill.
“We’ve definitely seen an uptake in interest in the sport. The one benefit we have is that the sport is all-inclusive, it’s men, women, children, adults, para players, it’s very family friends. You can take your kids down to your local club and they can play in the court beside you.
“It’s for all ages, we run competitions from U11 right up to 80 years-of-age and that’s a big benefit of our sport, people can stay in it as long as they want to.
“There’s an opportunity to keep pushing the sport out to the public and we think it’s doing quite well so far. Hopefully, the Olympics will be another boost to that.”
Sonia McGinn was Ireland’s first badminton Olympian in 1996 and since then, the nation has enjoyed an impressive representation in both the Olympics and Paralympics.
Scott Evans traveled as part of Team Ireland in 2008, 2012 and 2016 as did former European Championships bronze medalist Chloe Magee. Together with her brother, Sam, Magee is vying for one final Olympic spot at Toyko 2021 in the mixed doubles tournament.
“Up until everything came to halt, they were in a tough position. It’s very, very hard to get a qualification spot in mixed doubles and they were just outside the list with a couple of key tournaments coming up. There was a bit of relief when they got the break for a bit but they’re very keen to get back and they’re training again pretty hard this week.
“Chloe and Scott have been great ambassadors for the sport. Scott retired two years ago and Chloe is coming to the end of her career so it’ll be a passing of the torch to our younger players”.
Getting to that stage is not an easy journey. It takes huge time, skill, and determination from a young age for an Irish player to establish themselves on the global stage. Players such as 2021 Olympic hopeful Nhat Nguyen have been playing since they were eight.
While there are other obstacles, such as funding, which can compromise a player’s progression, a professional career in badminton is not an unrealistic goal for any Irish player.
“Players start quite young and get international experience. Usually, they come in via our academies which we use as talent ID locators. If they meet our criteria, then we will support them, to some extent, to go to international events and play across Europe and the world. Then they transition to seniors which is an entirely different game altogether.
“It’s hard to get on that stage, but once you’re on, you’re not on for good. They’re assessed every year. It’s tough for them because a lot of them are doing this part-time, especially in the junior section when they’re studying and working. So it’s tough to maintain their fitness.
“But we have a strong group of players based at the High-Performance Centre in Dublin who compete internationally and they maintain their spots.
“Sport Ireland have a set of criteria for funding players, a carding criteria. It’s very hard to get on carding, our four carded players are Sam and Chloe, Nhat, and our para-player Niall McVeigh. They get a bit of funding depending on the level they’re carded at, it can be €12,000 or €20,000 a year which they put towards their tournaments. But they could sometimes run over that.
“With the players that aren’t carded, they get a certain budget towards their tournaments but many of them do put their hand in their own pockets to fund their competitions abroad. It’s semi self-funded.
“But there is a clear, defined pathway, if a player is interested and has the ability, we can work with them from U13’s right up until senior”.
Since the deferral of the Tokyo Olympics to 2021, the schedules and mindset of the Irish players have been moved with it. But Badminton Ireland are not taking their eye off the end goal. They have lots to celebrate at the moment and hope that a successful run to Japan next summer can cap off what is a hugely exciting time for the sport.
“Right up until everything stopped, we were on a high. Last year was our 120th anniversary and we ran a load of stuff off the back of that. We had our Irish Open televised on TG4 in partnership of AIG for the second year running. There was a buzz especially because Nhat had a good position in the qualification and Sam and Chloe were close. It was getting exciting and we were getting to that point where we could look forward.
“We also had the Paralympics, Niall McVeigh was in the top seven in the world when everything stopped so he was competing for a spot and there was great excitement around that.
“Unfortunately, everything ground to a halt but I do feel that anticipation rising again with the players now we can see our way out of all of this. Qualification starts again in 2021 so now we’re focusing on getting on players in the best positions possible to hit the ground running.”