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The Origin: From Poona to England
In the middle of the 19th century, bored British soldiers in the Occupied Indian Subcontinent came up with a game that involved hitting a woolen ball with rackets. The game quickly caught on amongst the soldiers garrisoned at the British Headquarters in the state of Poona, and it came to be known as Poona or Poonai (belonging to Poona).
But wait. Before you commend the British soldiers on their ingenuity, you will do well to know that the game was inspired by Battledore or Shuttlecock; a game played in ancient Greece, China, Japan, and Europe for almost 2000 years.
Battledore or Shuttlecock was played as a recreational game in the homes and public places of ancient civilizations. It involved hitting a feathered cork, called Shuttlecock, with Rackets. Played by at least 2-players, the objective of the game was to pass the Shuttlecock back and forth between the players as many times as possible without letting the shuttlecock fall.
Interestingly, the paddles used for Battledore were very akin to the modern Badminton Rackets. They were made by stretching gut (usually catgut) across a wooden frame. The Shuttlecock was manufactured by affixing trimmed and shaped feather to the top of lightweight material, usually cork. Made with a cork ball and goose feather, the modern Shuttlecock is basically just a better version of its predecessor.
The only thing that the British soldiers invented was a net, Battledore/Shuttlecock did not include one. The Badminton net divides the playing area into two equal parts; the main purpose of the net is to denote a foul line. Players try to make the Shuttlecock hit the floor on the opponent’s side to gain points. Initially, British soldiers used woolen balls but quickly realized that the traditional Shuttlecock is a better option.
The Anglo-Indian game of Poonai raged across British garrisons in the Indian Subcontinent. Historical accounts reveal that the game became popular amongst the locals as well as the soldiers in Madras, Bombay (modern-day Mumbai), Peshawar, and Calcutta. In other parts of India, the game was also known as Tom Fool, Tam Tam, and Phul (meaning flower, a reference to the Shuttlecock).
Across the 1850s, Poonai or Tam Tam was played in both forms, with a woolen ball or a shuttlecock. Indian royalty, like the Prince of Tanjore, enjoyed playing Poonai with bright yellow woolen balls. It appears that woolen balls were preferred in windy areas of the country where the Shuttlecock failed to fly in the right direction.
The English later dubbed the game as Ball Badminton. Therefore, we can see that the game of Poonai later diversified into two separate sports: Ball Badminton and Badminton.
The Mystery Surrounding the Name ‘Badminton’
Unable to leave the game behind, retired British soldiers exported this evolved game to England when they went back home. As it happened, the Duke of Beaufort hosted a banquet at his house called the Badminton House in Gloucestershire, England.
The Badminton House was part of the Badminton Estate in the town of Badminton in Gloucestershire, England. Several retired British army personnel were also present during the banquet, they introduced the game of Poonai to the Duke’s guests.
The guests loved the game and participated in it wholeheartedly; since then, the name of the game changed from Poonai to Badminton in reference to the Badminton Estate. Historical accounts reveal that John Loraine Baldwin, a family friend of the Duke and a notable sportsman, standardized the rules of Badminton on one of his visits to the estate. He officially baptized the Anglo-Indian game as Badminton. In the 19th century, British influence was considerable in India, and therefore, the name Badminton quickly became the official name in India as well.
In 1873, a reader booked an advertisement space in The Field, the most famous field sports magazine of the time. The reader wanted to learn information about the game of Battledore, which was famous in India. Many people replied to the advertisement; most of them were retired soldiers and expatriates. All the responses identified a game with a common identity but with variations, depending on the area where it was played. A synthesis of the responses revealed the following:
- A Badminton court can be of two types: (i) rectangular and (ii) Hour-glass shaped.
- The length of the court is between 28 to 39 feet. The length of the court is smaller for female players. The length of the court is larger if more than two players are playing at a time.
- The number of players on both sides should be even.
- The game can be played 2 – 8 players
- The game ends when a player achieves either 15 or 21 points.
It is very clear that the modern rules of Badminton are indeed a polished version of these Anglo-Indian rules.
Badminton in England
In 1875, Lieutenant Seymore Dolby, who later became the founder of the Badminton Association, opened the first Badminton Club in Kent, England. The club met in the ballroom of the West Cliff Hotel, where Badminton and tea were the favorite past-time of expatriates, retired army officers, and local badminton enthusiasts.
Other clubs quickly formed in Bath, Southsea, Teignmouth, and Guildford. In 1876, journalist Henry Jones published an article titled, ‘The Anglo-Indian Game of Badminton,’ in hopes of creating awareness about the game. In the same year, J. Buchanan, manufacturer of sports equipment, published his book ‘Lawn-Tennis and Badminton’ to highlight its advantages. These efforts paid off as more and more people began taking an interest in the new sport. One of the main reasons if its popularity was its universalness; Badminton could be played by men and women.
In the coming years, ‘ many authors, sports enthusiasts, sports experts, and Badminton enthusiasts helped develop the rules of the game and standardized the equipment that will be used to play Badminton. Given the dreary weather of England, indoor Badminton rules were devised, and it became one of the most popular recreational activity of that decade.
The Badminton Association is Born
In 1893, Secretaries of 9 Badminton Clubs met at the behest of Lieutenant Seymore Dolby and agreed on the formation of the Badminton Association. After this, the game spreads quickly across the English Isles. Retired army officers promote the game in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.
The game quickly became integrated into the English society; painters painted it to show their creative license, and political cartoonists used the game to signify political and military conflicts.
However, the Badminton Association (BA) was focused on bringing the game to the masses. This could only happen with unified rules and organized competitive games. In March 1898, the BA organized the first-ever Badminton Tournament. The tournament was played on an hour-glass court by women and men.
The success of the tournament led to the formation of the Badminton Association Tournament. The tournament was a grand success, it played a pivotal role in creating interest in the engaging game of Badminton. In the 1900s, 45 clubs were registered with the BA. Single and double tournaments were being held yearly to great success. The All-England Championship in 1902 is a testament to the popularity of the game in the 20th century.
Badminton Spreads to Europe, Africa, Australia, and North America
Many retired army officers took it upon themselves to spread the game of Badminton across the world. At the beginning of the 20th century, Badminton was already popularized in Africa. Similarly, clubs were being formed in Europe, Australia, Canada, and the USA.
Badminton in the Olympics
Badminton was debuted at the Summer Olympic games of 1992. Since then, it has been contested in every Olympic game. 69 nations have participated in Badminton at the Olympic level. In 2010, Badminton was included in the Olympic Youth Sports as well. The current champion of the Badminton is China with 18 Gold, 8 Silver, and 15 Bronze Medals. Interestingly, Great Britain and India, the pioneers of the game, hold on 3 and 2 medals, respectively.
You may be surprised to know that Badminton is the second most famous game in the world. Played by 220 million people, the game of Poonai from British India has broken all the barriers to emerge as the second most popular sport of the day.
Although variations in the game still continue to happen (see Speed Badminton), it is evident that Badminton will withstand the test of time and will continue being played for a long time