THE POWER OF ASIA: PHILIPPINES
Badminton Asia (BA) had the opportunity to interview 2 members of the Philippine Badminton Association: Secretary General Epok Quimpo (Chris) and National Team coach Ronald Magnaye. In our interview, we discussed a variety of topics ranging from badminton’s popularity in the region, how the association and players are dealing with COVID-19, the challenges they’ve faced, and the goals they have for the future of the sport.
A brief introduction
Secretary General Epok Quimpo, also known as ‘Chris’ always had badminton in his life. Everyone in his family plays badminton. “Here in the Philippines, people here for the longest time have been playing badminton 24/7, meaning they have the usual gym goers in the morning, those who come from the office after office hours and some of them all the way to early morning. I first experienced it because my sister had this lifestyle.” he says. The interest of badminton has always been around him, but it wasn’t until 2017 where it became a part of his profession. He was tasked with looking at “how to change the badminton landscape” as he puts it, which became an awakening for him, as it changed his view of the sport from it just being a ‘lifestyle’ to a professional sport that athletes take part in.
National Team coach Ronald Magnaye was also introduced with badminton at a young age. He was influenced by his father, who encouraged him to play. “I became a junior player and eventually was involved in the national team and won 3x doubles as a national champion”, he tells us. Ronald has been playing badminton for a long time and has seen it change drastically since he started. “In the 90s, badminton was not that popular, we had this grassroots development program where we travelled all around the country to introduce people to badminton,” he says. “But now, people are catching up. People now are playing during the day, midday, evening.” After his playing career, he came back as a national coach in 2016 and even passed down his love and talent of badminton to his son, Peter Gabriel Magnaye, who won the mixed doubles title at the 2019 Sydney International.
Badminton’s popularity and status as a ‘leisure’ sport
According to both Chris and Ronald, badminton is roughly fourth in terms of popularity amongst the general public (after basketball, volleyball and football). But what’s interesting that we learnt is that in the Philippines, badminton is seen as a ‘leisure’ sport. “If you put it to the leisure level, badminton is up there with golf. The categories are different because it cuts across when it comes to the Philippines, when you talk about badminton,” Chris explains to us. But how? How did badminton become a lifestyle and achieve this status as a sport for leisure? “It became a craze, everyone jumped the bandwagon, in the early 2000s. Everyone wanted to play the game. Even the players, they buy them in Hong Kong and Japan,” Chris starts. He explains that in Manila, most people workout indoors because of the hot climate. For those who are working, they go to the gym and start socializing. Naturally, people started creating groups, tournaments with different age brackets. “The fulfillment is there, imagine being older and receiving a trophy!” Chris laughs. “It’s a total cycle, on a smaller scale, but it catered to a bigger population and not just the elite. That’s how badminton has become very popular everywhere.”
It’s popularity grew so much that the majority of the clubs do “queuing”. “Even if you’re just alone, you get to be fielded with other players and you play with them. You pay and you get to play with other players. People play until late at night.” Ronald adds.
The popularity of the sport also means placing their athletes at a higher standard when it comes to their quality of play. “We have very high standards of how we want the athletes to be and how we want the team to excel.” Along with coach Ronald, their teams have been sent to countries like Indonesia where they get to play with some of the best players in the world. “Right now, it’s the time where we can jumpstart everything because we already have an idea of who’s on top, and what it takes to be on their level.” Chris tells us.
The high standards and hard work paid off. Last year, with the 2019 Southeast Asian (SEA) games, hosted in the Philippines, it was the 1st time where all of their national players in the 5 events reached the quarterfinals. “We were on a roll because we were playing with the best. We trained in Indonesia last year for 3 months and then went to Australia and won the men’s doubles championships. That momentum passed onto the SEA games, and continued with the Badminton Asia Championship team event” Ronald tells us. “We are slowly but surely putting the pieces together” says Chris.
Local tournaments and the national team players
The Philippines has a lot of local tournaments in different regions, most notably the ‘Smart National Open Badminton Tournament’ where the best of the best in the country are invited. “There are collegiate tournaments and club based tournaments but the rankings are really different” Chris explains to us. “However, if you have a tournament that caters to those who’ve won golds and silvers, then you’ll get to see kaliber competition. For the past years, the national team also joined these tournaments. They are seated already and are ready to play against the best in the college level and commercial players.” In addition to these open tournaments, they also have the juniors program, built on the intent of introducing badminton to the children at an early age. “We invite children from elementary schools, we have our sponsors and they provide the gear, from shuttles to rackets.”
The national team players often compete in these local tournaments to gain greater experience and play. However according to Ronald, it wasn’t always like this and was very different to when he was a part of the team during the years ‘87-’97. “Unlike before, the players are well funded, well trained. Now, we can just focus majorly on training. Before, we had to buy our own strings, shuttlecocks. We couldn’t play many tournaments, it was very seldom.” When he was playing, badminton wasn’t as well-known and popular. “One day I was walking on the streets and my friend was like ‘what’s that table tennis?’ and my classmates would ask me if i’m a tennis player and i would say ‘no, i’m a badminton player!’ It was not really popular before because they only thought that it was only for ‘ladies’.” Ronald explains. But now, he says, players from the Philippines are keeping up with the rankings of the world’s bests.
The challenges they face
Despite badminton’s growing popularity among the general public, there are many key issues that they’ve faced (and are facing) over the last few years. One of the main challenges, according to Chris, is turning badminton from just being a leisure sport to a more serious and professional one for the public. “The challenge nowadays is evident,” Chris starts. “Badminton was very popular because it was a lifestyle sport. You get to dress up, have nice equipment, with bags, it’s fancy and colorful, you exercise, but it looks good too! That’s how Filipinos view the sport. However the transition from it just being a ‘lifestyle sport’ to a professional sport is the challenge. Most people are stuck on the ‘lifestyle’ aspect.”
But Chris says that this challenge has made them change the way in which they promote the sport to the public. “From what we’ve seen during the lockdown period, what we’ve decided is to revise our social media platform. For the past months, we tried to make it active again and to awaken the badminton enthusiast. When I looked at the stats it’s actually good! Almost 50,000 engagements over the past few weeks.” He continues, “We started by slowly introducing our national team players, and we are now giving away merchandise, and we also suggested posting their smash pictures. It’s good because it’s the time to be creative and reach out to the fans. It’s still a challenge to reach out to the gen z. It’s a different audience but i really believe that if we get them hooked, the popularity of the sport will grow.”
Another major challenge that they have is the fact that there is no major professional team in badminton in the country, they only have their national team players. “In the Philippines, there’s no ‘professional’ team so there’s no career, unlike basketball or football where they have professional levels,” Ronald explains to us. “So our players are tied up with training and studying because the majority of our players are student athletes. If the schedule of their studies clashes with our training, they have to prioritize their studies because some of them have scholarships and are scared of losing it.” He then continues on “Of course everyone wants to represent their country in their national team. But there’s no professional level. We are looking forward to having one and if we do, the outlook of the players and parents will be different.”
However, despite not having a professional team, the enthusiasm for the sport from the public is there. People love the sport and want to support its players. “During the SEA games, the venues were big and packed. If you think about it, for a country that doesn’t have any professional tournament for its people, how can we gather so many people in terms of audience?” Chris asks. “The tournaments here are not always televised, even on the highest form of collegiate level, you can only catch some highlights online. But to my surprise it's packed. People were cheering, they were educated in the game, they know when the opponents and players are really good.” In terms of badminton as a spectator sport, there’s a good audience, however according to Ronald and Chris, in terms of it being a professional job for players, they have to still put the foundation in place. “If we have this, it can raise the enthusiasm of the people but also for the collegiate badminton players to aim to go pro and not just the national team” Chris concludes.
These challenges are big and tough, but Chris tells us that they have to start somewhere in order to climb up. “We are going into the right direction” he assures us. “We have promising junior players. We won't stop training young players who are promising and devoted to the game we love. After seeing the best in the world and if we put our heads and hearts to it, someday we’ll be a part of the elite world ranking”.
The pandemic and its effect on badminton
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has affected all aspects of life, including professional sports. Many have had to adjust their training in order to comply with the health and safety regulations. Since February, the players have been doing their personal exercise regimens. “Right now our players are training at their homes. We gave them this regiment to do at home, and we monitor them once in a while. The coaches gave them exercises to maintain their physique” says coach Ronald. But this hasn’t been easy as the athletes have been continuously asking them when they could return back to ‘normal’ training. However, health and safety remains their number one priority. “We don’t want to violate any protocols because it’s medical in nature. We are now in the process of asking permissions to play again, even in limited capacity.” Chris says.
Their goals for the future
The association has a lot of goals to continue their path of growth and success. Chris gives us 3 of their main goals in the future. “Firstly, the goal for the federation is to strengthen the fundamentals and teachings when it comes to badminton, as we have promising young kids. Through more exposure and more tournaments, we can come up with more. This includes making our coaches better from exposure.”
“Second, we want this to be a total ecosystem from grassroots, universities, professional and national teams. Third, to wake up and ignite the badminton community, not just as a lifestyle but to aspire people to become a national team player and hopefully a professional player”.
In terms of silverware, Ronald sets his aims high. “The ultimate goal is to win the SEA games, and after that to go to the Olympics. If we beat the champions in SEA, everything will follow.” The future of badminton in the Philippines is a bright one. They have many young talented athletes and the public is enthusiastic for the sport. We hope to see them achieve these goals for the future of badminton in the Philippines.