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Star power and money

As a badminton writer for the past decade, I have never found myself in a situation so perplexing as the Lee Zii Jia versus BAM saga.

On one side, we have the world No 7 wanting to be an independent shuttler and making the country proud at the same time. On the other, BAM have decided to not register him for any international tournament for the next two years, if he turns pro.

Social media is abuzz with fans taking sides. But how well informed are they on the complexities of the issue especially when contracts are breached?

Do note that the highest body for the sport is the Badminton World Federation (BWF), and it is clearly stated that all players must go through their respective member associations, in this case BAM, to compete in any BWF-sanctioned events. So unlike tennis, shuttlers cannot compete in any international event without the blessing of their national associations.

Zii Jia resigned on grounds that he felt pressured to be in the national team as well as not being able to cope with the regimented lifestyle at BAM.

This shocked BAM, who were clearly not ready to part ways prematurely with their best asset, not with the 2024 Paris Olympics fast approaching.

After several informal meetings which included counter offers, Zii Jia still insisted on leaving, 11 years after joining BAM as a 13-year-old. BAM smashed back with a two-year "ban". Harsh, isn't it?

Absolutely. Why punish a player who is good for a podium finish at the 2024 Olympics?

"Stop being a big bully BAM". "Leave Malaysia, Singapore will welcome you with open arms". "Head over to Dubai and train with Viktor Axelsen". These were among the responses from netizens.

I do not have an agenda, nor am I taking sides. My only hope is that at the end of this piece, the public may have a better understanding of how things work.

BAM players are required to sign contracts when they join the national junior squad, and again when they transition to the national elite squad.

And in the contracts, it is clearly stated that a player is not to withdraw from the National Training Centre without BAM's approval. It is also stated that if a player withdraws but intends to continue to participate in international competitions, BAM can take punitive actions against the said player as this may be deemed appropriate to protect BAM's interest.

Now, what is BAM actually protecting? One may wonder.

Last year, BAM signed a five-year sponsorship deal worth RM55 million with Yonex, and before that a six-year deal with Victor worth RM60 million.

What has this got to do with Zii Jia anyway? The thing is these sponsors have certain requirements before jumping into multimillion commitments, and one of them is that the national team must have several top athletes carrying their sports equipment brands. Should these athletes leave prematurely, sponsors are at liberty to cut back on their deals.

This would mean that funds to the states - to develop younger shuttlers and grassroots programmes - will have to be reduced as well. What about the day-to-day operations costs, coaches, support service staff and the monthly allowances of 60 other national players that BAM will have to pay?

If BAM do not nip this in the bud, it will set a precedent, and more young players will opt to leave the national set-up due to lucrative offers outside. What about BAM's investments then?

BAM are a non profit organisation and if I could respond to social media comments, take note that BAM do not take a cut from players' prize money.

Understandably, many stars, including world No 1 Axelsen, world No 3 Anders Antonsen and Hans Kristian Solberg Vittinghus are showing support for Zii Jia.

These Danes, who were never afraid to speak up in the past, have a point surely, but this was exactly what Lee Chong Wei meant when he said: "Do not compare yourself with foreigners, their culture and ours are not the same."

These Danes rose to where they are today on their own. They have never depended on their national association as everything is sourced on their own. In other words, they are truly independent.

This was how the Association of Tennis Professionals were born in the 1970s, but can badminton do the same? Are players from the various continents united on this? Are there sponsors brave enough to fund independent players that break away from the world body?

BWF, led by a Dane, Poul-Erik Høyer Larsen, have remained silent throughout the Zii Jia episode, and have not responded to several top players' call for the world body to amend their regulations, which allegedly give member associations "too much power" over players.

Will Zii Jia come around on his decision to continue playing under BAM, or will he fight on in the name of national interest?

It is learnt that he will hold a press conference soon to tell his side of the story, but until then it remains to be seen how the All England champion can continue fighting this battle alone.

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