With a haul of one gold, one silver and two bronze medals, Rio saw Europe’s best-ever badminton performance at the Olympics.
It was not merely in the medals tally, but in the manner of their performances, that Europe made a statement.
Carolina Marin (featured image) went where no other European Women’s Singles player before her had, claiming the title without ever being threatened. The Spaniard has now won all of the major finals she’s been in; her speedy, take-no-prisoners brand of badminton is the new standard which her contemporaries will have to match. Considering the constraints she has had to train under – the limitations of sparring partners, for instance – her success will no doubt inspire other hopefuls across Europe.
Her coach Fernando Rivas promised “a new Carolina” before the competition in Rio began, and that was exactly what he delivered: a super-confident Marin, unencumbered by her relative lack of success in the MetLife BWF World Superseries season this year. Rivas had spoken about having tailored a training regimen for her that is apparently different from Asian systems; will her success inspire similar innovation across the badminton world in developing unique systems for individuals?
“It is more than a medal because of everything behind the medal. I have the best team behind me, they helped me a lot and were amazing,” said Marin.
What must hearten Europe was that their success wasn’t of a single country, or in a single category.
Denmark’s Christinna Pedersen and Kamilla Rytter Juhl came within a heartbeat of a gold medal, with a 19-16 lead in the third game of their Women’s Doubles final against Japan’s Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi. The Danes had recovered from their opening defeat to China’s Luo Ying/Luo Yu, getting steadier with each match, and matching their silver medal performance from the TOTAL BWF World Championships last year.
“Badminton is getting competitive in all categories,” said Pedersen, after the Danes had beaten Tang Yuanting/Yu Yang in the semi-finals to prevent China from making the Women’s Doubles final for the first time ever. “Before the Olympics, we discussed the possibility that it might not be China this year. It’s good for badminton. China are not dominating like they did four years ago. It could’ve been any of six or seven pairs in the final – luckily, it’s us.”
Selena Piek and Eefje Muskens performed creditably too, making the quarter-finals after finishing second in Group A. The Dutch pair beat India’s Jwala Gutta/Ashwini Ponnappa and Thailand’s Puttita Supajirakul/Sapsiree Taerattanachai in their group before going down in three games to Korea’s Jung Kyung Eun/Shin Seung Chan in the quarter-finals.
Viktor Axelsen lived up to pre-tournament expectations with a bronze medal in Men’s Singles. The Dane finished strongly, beating two-time champion Lin Dan in the bronze medal play-off, but he was a shade below his best in his semi-final against Chen Long.
That he was able to bounce back after his semi-final disappointment and win a podium place augurs well for the Dane and for Europe, since he is only 22 and has come close several times to winning the big titles.
Great Britain’s Rajiv Ouseph, who ran into Axelsen in the quarter-finals, too had a strong run. Ouseph’s standout performance was his three-game pre-quarter-final defeat over the stubborn Tommy Sugiarto of Indonesia, after group wins over Czech Republic’s Petr Koukal and Japan’s Sho Sasaki.
“My loss in London (Olympics) stayed with me for a long time,” said Ouseph, when asked about his form. “I’ve worked very hard in training, obviously that experience (from London 2012) has helped me. I’ve been getting better and believing in myself and beating some top players has helped me against these guys.”
Other Europeans who stole the headlines in the opening week included Ukraine’s Maria Ulitina, with her upset of India’s Saina Nehwal; Estonia’s Kati Tolmoff, who shocked Hong Kong’s Yip Pui Yin; Ireland’s Scott Evans, a surprise winner over Germany’s Marc Zwiebler, and Bulgaria’s Linda Zetchiri, who made the Round of 16 beating Great Britain’s Kirsty Gilmour.
Europe also had big gains in Men’s Doubles. Yonex All England champions Vladimir Ivanov and Ivan Sozonov finished on top of Group A beating top seeds Lee Yong Dae/Yoo Yeon Seong (Korea), Lee Sheng Mu/Tsai Chia Hsin (Chinese Taipei) and Matthew Chau/Sawan Serasinghe (Australia). The Russians had their chances in their quarter-final against China’s Chai Biao/Hong Wei, going down in a tight match: 21-13 16-21 21-16.
But it was Chris Langridge/Marcus Ellis who created the most ripples in the category. The Great Britain pair, whose last impressive performance was at the BWF World Championships a year ago, shot back into prominence with an upset in their first match, over Korea’s Kim Gi Jung/Kim Sa Rang. Victory over Poland’s Adam Cwalina/Przemyslaw Wacha saw them through to the quarter-finals, where they surprised Japan’s Hiroyuki Endo/Kenichi Hayakawa.
Missed chances cost them dear in their semi-final loss to China’s Zhang Nan/Fu Haifeng, but they were able to put that loss behind them in their bronze medal play-off against another Chinese pair, Chai Biao/Hong Wei. The third game won comfortably at 21-10, Langridge and Ellis were able to command the attention of the British press.
“It’s been a surreal week,” said Ellis, who explained that all the hard training at Milton Keynes was finally bearing fruit.
“We weren’t expected to get a medal. Coming here performing the way we have, beating the pairs we have is amazing. I don’t think we’ve performed like that ever. So to do it on the very biggest stage, the pinnacle of our careers, it is amazing. And I’m so happy we’ve managed to do it together because we have had some ups and downs.”
If there was disappointment for Europe, it was in Mixed Doubles. That three strong European pairs were in Group B with China’s Xu Chen/Ma Jin had much to do with it, as the quarter-finalists were decided by the slimmest of margins. Denmark’s Joachim Fischer Nielsen/Christinna Pedersen and Great Britain’s Chris Adcock/Gabrielle Adcock were unlucky to miss out, while Poland’s Robert Mateusiak/Nadiezda Zieba surprised everyone by making the quarter-finals.
The stirring run of the Poles made fans sit up and wonder: 40-year-old Mateusiak had shown that badminton was not the exclusive domain of the youthful. In more than one aspect, Europe’s performance in Rio might shape the way badminton is perceived in the immediate future.