Hasta la vista, Punch

When ‘Datuk’ Punch Gunalan, badminton’s most powerful figure of the last two decades, resigned as Deputy President of the world body on May 17, there was disbelief on the circuit. After all, this was a man who had a reputation for wriggling out of tight corners, and was known to have outmanoevred his way out of the stickiest of situations.

Several crises have plagued the federation for the last decade, but each time Gunalan managed to buy time. Many of the member nations of the Badminton World Federation had their own grievances against its functioning; rebellion had broken out from time to time, only to be swiftly quelled, for Gunalan is a master of strategy.

This time, however, Gunalan was outflanked in a manner that gave him no room to wriggle out. The Annual General Body (AGM) of the Badminton World Federation was at Jakarta, on the sidelines of the Thomas/ Uber Cup. That immediately put him out of home territory (Kuala Lumpur) where the world federation is headquartered.

His opponents brought about the coup with a masterstroke – they got the Indonesian police to threaten arrest of Gunalan and his confidants. This sounds bizarre – but stranger things have happened in badminton. Police confronted Karen Koh, Gunalan’s closest associate and chief of the Asian federation, with e-mail correspondence between her and Gunalan. The e-mail transcripts apparently referred to the purported ‘sabotage’ of the AGM on May 17. The police made it clear that they would link this attempted ‘sabotage’ with – incredibly – terrorism! Koh was given a prepared letter of resignation, and Gunalan, knowing that the ground had been prepared for his downfall, left the day before the AGM.

At the AGM, the vote of no-confidence was proposed by Mongolia – 142 members voted for the resolution, while 38 were against it.

The irony is that the coup was plotted by the President, Kang Young Joong of Korea, who was installed by Punch himself. But why have things come to such a pass?

Gunalan was a former Malaysian star, having won the 1974 Commonwealth Games gold and losing an epic All England final to the incomparable Rudy Hartono. Known as the ‘Panther’ and ‘The India Rubber Man’, Gunalan, who had the hardest smash of his time, became an icon of the Tamil fraternity in Malaysia, even earning the honorary title ‘Datuk’. After his playing days he was manager of the national team, before becoming an influential figure in the International Badminton Federation in the late-Eighties. Within a decade he had become its most powerful figure. His rise was due in part to his smooth-talking ways and charisma: he never refuses media requests for an interview; and has a soft drawl that convinces you he is dreaming big things for badminton.

A defining feature of Gunalan’s rule has been the power shift from Europe to Asia. Gunalan wasn’t content with Asians dominating the game – he wanted administrative power, and he wanted to distance the new-look federation from its historical moorings. Some say this is due to the racial prejudice he suffered in England in his younger days.

He orchestrated the shift in the headquarters of the world federation in the latter half of 2005, from Cheltenham in UK to Kuala Lumpur; he even changed the name of the federation from International Badminton Federation to Badminton World Federation. The change seems cosmetic, but to Gunalan, it denoted his desire to distance the game from its past. It was obvious that he cared little for tradition. At a press conference in Jaipur, 2006, during the Thomas/ Uber Cup qualifiers, he even brushed aside the importance of the All England. “The All England is just another tournament,” he smirked. “The World Championships and the Olympics are more important.” For someone who had played in the golden days of badminton, alongside such luminaries as Rudy Hartono, Svend Pri and Flemming Delfs, such distancing from tradition seems strange.

It was during this period that two fundamental changes were authored – the change in scoring system, from the 15×3 to the ‘rally’ system (21×3); and a new ‘Super Series’ based on the ATP Tour in tennis that promised higher prize money and more television-friendly coverage.

All along, however, controversy has followed Gunalan. The shift in headquarters was completed on the basis of his assurance that the Malaysian government and a few private firms had promised large sums of money to the federation. Both claims were sketchy – and the government later launched an enquiry. Problems with his one-time buddies, Ganga Rao and President Kang Young Joong, came to the fore at the contentious AGM at Glasgow in 2007. The first hints of murky undercurrents were visible when it emerged during the AGM that Gunalan had, in his capacity as Deputy President, released the bids of the other competing countries to Malaysia, to enable it to out-bid them!

Gunalan has also had a prickly relationship with Europe, having once attempted a takeover of the European Badminton Union. The Chinese, who maintain a stoic indifference to all administrative matters, were reportedly upset because their players weren’t being given the promised prize money. Still, Gunalan was able to maintain power because of his influence over Asia – and he was good at playing the number game.

Things finally snowballed out of control during the World Championships in Kuala Lumpur in August last year. Even as the matches were being played, Kang, who had walked out of a no-confidence motion, held a press conference accusing his deputy of rampant corruption. Kang stated to a startled press that “every single dealing from the awarding of the IT contract, TV distribution rights and sponsorship is tainted and questionable”.

Indeed, just the day before, the Malaysian Sports Minister, Azalina Othman, had raised the headquarters issue and asked Gunalan to step down.

It looked even then like his time was up, but Gunalan responded in the way that has served him well – by not commenting, and allowing the storm to blow over. It was obvious to his detractors that he could not be challenged on home turf – and it was thus they waited to strike at the AGM in Jakarta; to use physical power and intimidation where backroom negotiations had failed. It was perhaps the only way for them to counter Gunalan.

What now? All is quiet on the public front, but there is no doubt that he will try to get back. What should concern badminton followers is that another change in the administration will hurt the game (the BWF office is stocked with Punch loyalists) – and much of the data (on tournaments, players, etc) might be lost, just as it happened during the shift from Cheltenham to Kuala Lumpur.

And what of India? Gunalan, given his Indian origins, was perceived to be a friend of Indian badminton – he is close to BAI president VK Verma and national coach P Gopichand. Two major events are coming up – the World Junior Championships in October and the World Championships next year. It’s too early to judge how the new dispensation will treat India.

But whatever transpires from now on, one can only hope it will be less sleazy than the last decade.

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About badmintonmania

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the Indian in Thoreau's Walden who makes cane baskets and is surprised nobody wants them. A. was talking about discipline when she said: "But Dev, if you want to move ahead in life, you'll have to be like that," and she may as well have defined everything else for me. I've played the low percentage game for too long to believe there's anything in it but the romance; the odds keep getting jacked up higher and higher; and you may be a good Idealist but a worse Fool.
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