Badminton bronze

by Joseph Romanos / 10 September, 2005
Dan Shirley and Sara Runesten-Petersen hit form at the world championships.

For New Zealand badminton followers, it was appropriate that the world championships last month were held at Anaheim, just along the road from Disneyland. There was certainly a fairy-tale-like aspect to the bronze medal effort in the mixed doubles of New Zealanders Dan Shirley and Sara Runesten-Petersen.

Although New Zealand was one of the nine countries that formed the original International Badminton Federation in 1934, it is no more than a minnow in a sport dominated by the Asians and Europeans. Any scrap of success for New Zealand is cherished, whether it's a Whyte Trophy victory over Australia, a minor medal at a Commonwealth Games or someone winning a couple of matches in a tournament on the world circuit.

For Shirley and Runesten-Petersen to win a world championship medal was right off the radar of expectation. The world championships began in 1977 and, before this year, no New Zealanders had performed better than the "last 16" showings by Rebecca and Nicole Gordon in the women's doubles, and Nick Hall and Lianne Shirley and Dan Shirley and Runesten-Petersen in the mixed doubles in 2001. Back in 1989, Phil Horne excelled by reaching the last 16 in the singles.

Before the world champs, the All-England championship was the major event on the international calendar. Nancy Fleming (1951) and Heather Robson (1953) made the semi-finals of the All-England women's singles, and Jeff Robson reached the quarter-finals once, but that was before the Chinese and Koreans became such world forces.

In teams events, the New Zealand women's team performed outstandingly to make the Uber Cup inter-zone finals in United States in 1960. The team was Sonia Cox, Val Gow, Glenys Hopkinson, Betty Meyer, Heather Robson and Gilda Tompkins, with Fleming as manager. That was a great effort, but there has never been anything to match what Shirley and Runesten-Petersen have just done.

They've hinted at their potential, though they were disappointing at last year's Athens Olympics. This year they have led the world's No 1 pair by a set and 10-4 and they held matchpoints on the No 2-ranked pair in Singapore a few weeks before the world champs.

At Anaheim, they were seeded 15th and faced an awkward first-round match against Germans Ingo Kindervater and Katrin Piotrowski, winning 16-17, 15-9, 15-8. They then had comfortable wins over Ukrainians Vladislav Druzchenko and Elena Nozdran (15-1, 15-2) and Thailand's Songpol Anukritayawan and Kulchala Worawichitchaikul (15-4, 15-8). The big win was over sixth seeds Jae Jin Lee and Hyo Jung Lee of South Korea. The New Zealanders won 15-11, 15-13 to earn a berth in the semi-finals and guarantee themselves a medal.

In the semi-finals, they lost to Zhongbo Xie and Yawen Zhang of China 15-8, 15-8.

There was another encouraging showing at Anaheim, too, when No 2-ranked New Zealander Rebecca Bellingham (nee Gordon) reached the last 16 of the women's singles.

After their premature exit at Athens last year, Shirley and Runesten-Petersen were so disappointed that they talked about reassessing their priorities and possibly giving away the sport fulltime because it was so expensive.

Fortunately, they've battled on. It hasn't been easy this year with early exits at the All-England, German, Swiss and Thailand Opens and other hasty departures in Japan, Singapore and Malaysia. They've had success at lesser tournaments in New Zealand and Australia, but still, their stunning form at Anaheim was a shock.

Runesten-Petersen is 30 and Shirley just 26. The encouraging aspect is that they are getting better and could continue improving their world rankings for another two or three years.

Here's a conundrum. How come scores in modern international rugby are so high if the defences are so outstanding?

There's no questioning the effectiveness of modern defensive patterns. For instance, in that torrid test at Carisbrook the other day, two of the Springboks' three tries were the result of interceptions or charge-downs. Only one of the four All Black tries (Keven Mealamu's) came from a patterned move from set play.

The defences are so tight now, with players constantly pushing the off-side laws to the limit (and beyond), that it's nearly impossible to score a try from a free-flowing backline movement.

Why therefore, even in such hard-fought matches as the one in Dunedin, is the combined points tally often more than 70? In decades gone by, an 11-3 win was regarded as comprehensive and teams often failed to score. But the All Blacks haven't registered zero on the scoreboard since 1978 and any Tri-Nations (or Super 12) team failing to make double figures regards itself as having had a nightmare of a day.

I wouldn't have a clue whether Lance Armstrong was ever a drugs cheat, though there is certainly circumstantial evidence to suggest his performances might have been boosted by banned drugs during at least the early part of his stellar cycling career. Accounts of fellow team members have suggested he resorted to drugs, and that's not a good look.

But, as Armstrong points out, he never failed a drugs test (excluding for a medicine, and that's not what we're talking about). Further, in recent years, when he was tested daily for every known drug, he never returned a positive. If anything, his level of performance improved, so it's doubtful he needed drugs to win.

The latest revelations about Armstrong cheating are a joke. L'Equipe newspaper, the authoritative French sports publication, revealed that Armstrong's samples from the 1999 Tour de France have belatedly been tested for EPO and that the results were positive.

On that basis, the newspaper has branded him a cheat and, even worse, World Anti-Doping Agency chief Dick Pound has waded in with "we were right all along" type comments.

It's a disgrace. The samples tested, six years on, are apparently Armstrong's, though who can be sure now? Under what conditions have the samples been kept in the meantime? Who observed the testing? Any positive result requires a B sample, yet there were none with these 1999 specimen tests.

Pound, one of international sport's great grandstanders, knows full well that these latest findings would not stand up to proper scrutiny, but in his rush to condemn Armstrong, he ignores his own agency's code of practice. He should be ashamed of himself.

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