Punch Gunalan, former Deputy President of BWF who introduced most of the changes of contemporary world badminton, lives outside the limelight
Dev S Sukumar. Kuala Lumpur
Punch Gunalan looks tired. Perhaps it’s the heart operation he’d had, or perhaps it’s just age — he will soon be 67 — but the man who once ruled badminton looks careworn and able to speak only in a near-whisper.
“Let God decide if I have to come back into badminton,” he says, but you sense he doesn’t have it in him to fight any more.
Punch is the man who changed the face of badminton. Nearly every major change — the scoring system, the Super Series circuit, the Badminton World Federation headquarters, and even the very name of the ruling organisation — was authored by the former Deputy President, who was so powerful he could not be beaten in an election, and had to be ousted in a coup.
For over a century badminton was defined by its scoring system of 15 points over a best-of-three-game format, but Punch sensed its incompatibility with TV audiences and attention spans. After a short-lived experiment with a 7×5 system, Punch enforced the new 15×3 system, which dramatically reduced the length of matches, bringing it to an average of 30 minutes each, which better suited TV companies. The other unpopular change he made was to convert the name of the ruling association from International Badminton Federation to Badminton World Federation, and shift its headquarters from the UK to Kuala Lumpur. He seemed to care little for the traditions or history of the game, once dismissing the All England as “just another major tournament”.
But Punch, in his youth a brilliant attacking player who came close to winning the All England title over the incomparable Rudy Hartono, was a controversial figure. His power at the helm of the Badminton World Federation stemmed from his ability to cobble together alliances in a manner that was often questioned on ethical grounds, and he had powerful enemies. Indeed, at the 2007 World Championships in his home territory of Kuala Lumpur, the BWF President, Kang Young Joong, even had a press conference in which he accused his deputy of corrupt deals.
Punch recovered, but briefly. He was outmanoevred in the only way possible — at the next AGM in Jakarta, where he was about to be arrested by the army on charges of corruption. Having got wind of it, he escaped in the nick of time.
His health soon gave way, and he had three blocks in his heart that required an operation. That effectively ended his reign in the BWF, and he has maintained a low profile since then, venturing into a business that deals with stem cell products.
“I’ve been very quiet, I want to recover,” he admits, over lunch at Kuala Lumpur. “I’m well now. I often think about badminton… I got into so many problems. Why? We changed so many things; we changed the scoring system, we gave everybody a chance. The Chinese supported me, but many others didn’t. I changed the name of the federation to BWF because once I went to Africa and they thought IBF was a boxing association! I made a lot of enemies because of these changes… but we made a lot of geniune changes. The Super Series circuit you see today; that’s something I brought about. ”
It’s hard to say how Punch will be remembered. In that sense, it’s ironical that the man who cared little for the game’s history might now be judged more for what he did wrong than what he did right.