Dev S Sukumar
One of the greatest contemporary badminton players has left the sport with her name dragged through the mud. Now we can only reflect on the irony that the system which created Yu Yang betrayed her in the end.
London: We know little about Yu Yang, the Chinese women’s doubles player who retired from international badminton after being disqualified on Wednesday by the Badminton World Federation. Yu Yang and her partner Wang Xiaoli were found guilty, along with four Koreans and two Indonesians, of not playing a match at the Olympics in the right spirit and bringing disrepute to the game.
Of the little we know of her, it is this: Yu Yang is a contemporary great of badminton. A masculine, short-haired player with tremendous hitting ability, Yang was a feared player. She won two World Championship gold medals, one Olympic gold, three All England trophies, and a staggering number of other world titles in the company of different partners. In a Chinese badminton system that has produced champions of the highest class, Yu Yang was one of many gems. In recent times, Yang and Xiaoli were the closest one could come to the word ‘unbeatable’.
In her farewell message, Yu Yang said those who had decided her fate had “trampled on her dreams”. “This is my last competition. Goodbye my beloved badminton,” she posted on her personal blog. To become a successful sportsperson in China requires years of hard training and single-mindedness; for Yu Yang to have given up her career must therefore have been a heart-wrenching decision.
There was little doubt that the match she was penalised for was played in poor spirit. Those who watched it were angry, and believed the players had to be punished. And yet, we must concede that Yu Yang was a pawn in a larger game of national interest.
Yu Yang was a product of the Chinese system — a successful product. Chinese badminton players, in particular, have little say in their fate. The Chinese system consists of a vast network of clubs and local associations that act as conveyor belts to the national team. The players are provided training, accommodation and education at their national training centres, and they must do exactly as their coaches tell them to — for without their coaches, they would not exist as badminton players, and therefore would not have access to a better life.
What Yu Yang did on Tuesday evening was in accordance with team orders. Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli were trying to avoid a quarterfinal contest with their world No. 2 teammates Qing Tian and Zhao Yunlei. Unfortunately for them, the Chinese picked the wrong time and the wrong place and the wrong methods.
If the same had happened at any other event, it might have been ignored. But at the Olympics, the world’s media was in attendance, and there was a public uproar. The British press played it up prominently. The two teams played so poorly that no defence was admissible. The Badminton World Federation was left with no option but to disqualify them.
The eight players hadn’t expected things to spiral out of control. But also perhaps they never expected their own national associations to let them down. The Chinese team management, officially at least, disapproved of the players’ tactics. In other words, the players were suddenly the scapegoats for something they had little say in.
It’s hard to imagine what they went through. From heroes, they had become an embarrassment to their nations.And Yu Yang — what of her? Will she fade into oblivion? Will she return to the circuit? Will everybody forget her All England and World Championship and medals and remember her only as a cheat? We can only reflect on the irony that the system that created Yu Yang betrayed her in the end.