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Badminton

Shuttling towards a pro body?

The Lee Zii Jia issue has raised many questions among top athletes and fans, but the million dollar question is whether the future of badminton lies with a professional players' association.

On Friday, BAM announced that world No 7 Zii Jia and two-time former world junior champion Goh Jin Wei won't be registered for any international tournament for two years if they insist on leaving the national setup without approval.

Zii Jia, 24, tendered his resignation letter on Jan 11 in a move to turn independent, citing pressure and his inability to cope with the regimented lifestyle at the Academy Badminton Malaysia. Jin Wei had wanted to retire from the sport in September last year due to health reasons.

While BAM have drawn a lot of flak over their harsh decision, many top shuttlers, including world No 1 Viktor Axelsen, world No 3 Anders Antonsen and Danish compatriot Hans Kristian Solberg Vittinghus wouldn't mind lending their ears to breakaway talks from the existing Badminton World Federation (BWF) system, which they allege give member associations "too much power" over players.

Under BWF ruling, players, both national and independent, can only be registered to compete in BWF-sanctioned events by their respective member associations.

Timesport spoke to several badminton officials, former players and current ones, both national and independent on the issue.

The boycott of the 1973 Wimbledon tennis championship was used as a reference, where 81 players from the newly formed Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), including defending champion Stan Smith, did not compete as a sign of support for Yugoslavia's (now Croatia) Nikola Pilić who was suspended by the International Lawn Tennis Federation.

Pilić was suspended from playing in Wimbledon after he had refused to play for his country against New Zealand earlier.

Could Zii Jia and Jin Wei's current issues cause a similar reaction in the badminton world?

"Absolutely not. BWF are made up of member associations, most of which remain very strong Asian federations. Culturally, the Asian member associations will not support or allow something like this to happen," said a former Malaysian international, who chose to remain anonymous.

A professional, who still plays on the BWF World Tour, said: "It will be ideal... just look at how big tennis is now, the sponsors, the prize money.

"But is badminton ready for this? More importantly, are the players united enough to stage a protest or a boycott, and risk repercussions?"

Though badminton is yet to reach the level of its much richer cousin, the sport has come some way in terms of global value.

Axelsen, for example raked in US$239,000 (RM1 million) last year from winning the Denmark and Indonesia Opens, as well as the World Tour Finals.

The Olympic champion is a perfect example of a professional athlete who trains and sources for his sponsors independently.

It may take a while, before the sport of badminton comes to a stage as desired by professional shuttlers, but yet it is crucial to acknowledge the importance of a national association. Former world No 1 Lee Chong Wei said: "There is nothing that cannot be solved without a proper sit down discussion (between players and national association)."

As for reigning All England champion Zii Jia, it is learnt that he will hold a press conference soon to tell his side of the story.

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