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Wednesday July 9, 2008

Tensions will be simmering in the ‘genteel’ world of badminton

HONG KONG: First came the flying racquet, then the shouting, and finally the shoving.

The crowd watched stunned at this year's Korean Open badminton final as an ugly scuffle erupted between the world's number one Lin Dan and a South Korean coach whose charge had the Chinese star on the ropes.

Lin dan, China's best hope for badminton gold at the Olympics, apparently threw his racquet in the direction of the coach, sparking a shouting match between the two. Lin's coach joined the fracas and pushing ensued.

Officials struggled to restrain the two camps, before Lin Dan received a yellow card for his trouble and lost the match. No apologies were offered, even after tempers had cooled.

Instead, Lin Dan accused the coach of “verbally attacking” him during play, while the coach branded the world champ an “ill-cultivated player” – the worst he had ever known.

Arch-rivals: China’s Lin Dan and Taufik Hidayat have clashed spectacularly during their illustrious careers. – AFP

To outsiders badminton appears genteel, as lithe players, with deft precision and light footwork, flick a shuttlecock back and forth – all in the comfort of an air-conditioned stadium.

Unlike sports such as football and rugby, where kicking, head butting and even eye gauging in a muddy scrum seem likely, badminton appears, to the unsuspecting, sedate.

But it has its share of controversy, theatrics and questionable conduct.

And although come the Beijing Olympics, players and coaches are almost certain to be on their best behaviour, tensions will never the less be simmering below the surface.

Pundits, aware of the sport's past blowups, rivalries and grudges, will be relishing a showdown between Lin Dan, known as “Super Dan” to his fans, and arch-rival Olympic champion Taufik Hidayat of Indonesia.

Hidayat, branded the bad boy of badminton for his fiery temper, has clashed spectacularly with the world champion during their illustrious careers.

Hidayat stunned spectators at the 2006 Hong Kong Open when, down in the first game of his quarter-final match against Lin Dan, he stormed out in protest over a line-call.

The acrimony culminated later that year at the Asian Games when Hidayat told reporters that Lin Dan was arrogant. Lin Dan's girlfriend, the world's number one women's shuttler Xie Xingfang, swiftly hit back, calling the Indonesian cold and arrogant.

Hidayat, whose career has drawn comparisons with tennis great John McEnroe, has since declared he has nothing against Lin Dan, and also says he is a reformed and more relaxed character since the birth of his daughter last year.

Controversy, however, has continued to dog Lin Dan heading into the Games.

Chinese media rounded on the champion in April when he allegedly hit his coach during a training session. He denied the incident, but later apologised amid calls for him to be dumped from the team as punishment.

In August, insiders will also be watching for signs of controversy of a different type – match throwing – after China's coach admitted ordering a player to lose her semi-final at the Athens Olympics four years ago.

Coach Li Yongbo revealed to Chinese television this year that he told the player “not to work too hard” against team-mate Zhang Ning – whom he had decided stood a better chance of winning the final.

Zhang eventually did win gold and will be defending her title in Beijing.

Yongbo said he and the Chinese team had nothing to be ashamed of. “It shows our patriotism and in fact I am proud of it.” – AFP

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