I Iearned my worst-ever sporting injury playing badminton. In my time, I have participated vigorously in soccer, rugby, squash, tennis and hockey. I’ve sprinted over hurdles and I’ve ridden horses over jumps. I have even white-water rafted on three of the most dangerous rivers in the world. But it was badminton that put me on crutches.
I was not the first victim. The sport has a history stretching back 2,000 years. Primitive shuttlecocks whizzed back and forth in the shadows of the Egyptian pyramids. The ancient Greeks played it. Historic variations on the theme have also been found in India and Japan.
The modern game of badminton — like so many other sports — formally began in Britain in the second half of the 19th century. The British have long had a flair for appropriating traditional pastimes from around the world and providing them with rulebooks and governing bodies.
In this case, the pivotal evolutionary moment came in the 1850s at Badminton, the country house of the Duke of Beaufort. A racket game that had become popular among British army officers in India was played on the Duke’s immaculate lawn for the entertainment of guests. It caught on, and eventually a uniform set of rules was set. By the end of the century, the Badminton Association had been established.
To this day, the basic parameters remain. The court is marked out to a length of 44 feet and a width of 17 feet (or 20 feet for a game of doubles). The top of the net is fixed at 5 feet. Although badminton can be played outdoors, it is essentially an indoor sport. Anyone who has ever tried hitting a shuttlecock into a stiff breeze will understand why.
The shuttlecock itself is one of the more bizarre objects in sport. Early versions consisted of a cork head inlaid with a cone-shaped tail of feathers. Its aerodynamics are remarkable. The head will always right itself in flight, and despite its cumbersome shape it is capable of moving at very high speeds (though the drag of the feathers slows it down quickly). The fastest smash in badminton was clocked at 209 mph; as opposed to a mere 153 mph for the fastest recorded serve in tennis.
The primary physical attribute required of competitive badminton players is agility. During a professional game the shuttlecock becomes a barely visible blur as the opponents batter it back and forth. To compete at the highest level, you must be exceptionally fit.
Fitness is also a necessity for casual badminton, as I discovered to my cost. I had been a very keen badminton player at school, but when I decided to return to the sport more than a decade later I failed to acknowledge that my muscles had lost their teenage elasticity and my reflexes had lost their sharpness.
The memories of my glory days were still fresh. My brain was not willing to acknowledge the limitations of my older body. Less than five minutes into the match, I swiveled for an impossible-to-reach shot and my hamstring went “twang.” For the three weeks I was on crutches, I had the added indignity of having to supply an answer to a frequently asked question.
“I got injured playing badminton.”
People would laugh.
Badminton seems such an innocuous, tame sport. But I know better. It requires speed, strength, stamina and lightning-quick reactions. In recent years Asian and Danish players have dominated the sport, and I have nothing but respect for them. To watch a badminton rally in blinding flow is one of the most scintillating spectacles in sport.
Watch it and enjoy it, but participate at your peril.
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