Philip Barker ©ITG

It is now 30 years since an Olympic gold medal became the ultimate prize in badminton, yet the All England Open Badminton Championships - the oldest tournament in the sport - retains its own special place.

Last year, the event was staged without crowds as part of anti-COVID-19 measures.

Although spectators are set to return for the 2022 competition, it begins in Birmingham this week under a very different shadow. There will be no Russian players at the All England Championships after an edict from the Badminton World Federation (BWF) made in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.

"BWF has strengthened its measures against the governments of Russia and Belarus by suspending athletes and officials representing these countries from participating at any BWF-sanctioned international tournaments until further notice," a statement from the governing body read.

The measures came into force last week. 

"BWF remains committed to supporting the people of Ukraine, and the Ukrainian badminton community, as part of the sports movement’s mission to promote peace and solidarity between all people."

The All England Championship roll of honour includes many of the greatest names of the sport.  Indonesia’s Susi Susanti, the first women’s Olympic gold medallist in 1992, has a special place in the annals.

Her four All England titles neatly bookmark her landmark Olympic victory. Two came before and two afterwards.

The 2021 tournament in Birmingham was held without spectators as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic ©Getty Images
The 2021 tournament in Birmingham was held without spectators as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic ©Getty Images

Since the Second World War, overseas domination has been so complete that no English players have won since Gail Emms and Nathan Robertson, Olympic silver medallists in 2004, won the mixed doubles title together in 2005.

Yet when the All England Championships were first established at the end of the last century, only doubles play was on the schedule and the competition was contested only by home players.

In 1898, a first experimental open competition was held in Guildford, a town 50 kilometres outside London.

"It was a happy idea of the Guildford Badminton Club to hold an open tournament on Thursday of last week," reported The Queen, a newspaper for women.

The event was organised by Guildford club secretary Percy Buckley and his wife presented the prizes afterwards.

"An abundant supply of prizes to serve as mementoes of a pleasant day’s contests to the fortunate winners."

 St John’s Club Ealing proved "quite invincible" in that first tournament, held five years after a national badminton association had been founded.

"As the members entertained their visitors, including friends of the competitors who had come for the pleasure of looking on, nothing was wanting to make the gathering thoroughly enjoyable," reporters said admiringly.

The following year, the first formal championships were held at the Scottish Regiment drill hall at Buckingham Gate in London, where facilities were described as "spacious and handsome."

The shape of the court differed somewhat from that used today and almost took the form of an hourglass.

Canadian Jack Purcell began a major trend of foreign players competing in the All England Championships ©Getty Images
Canadian Jack Purcell began a major trend of foreign players competing in the All England Championships ©Getty Images

"It may be stated at the outset that the tournament proved in every way a more complete success than the committee had dared hope for," The Field magazine reported.

The programme still only included doubles play. The men’s event was won by "DW" Oakes and Stuart Massey.

"They carried too many guns for the others", The Field suggested.

The ladies' competition went to Meriel Lucas and Mary Grahame. Julia Margaret St John, known as "Daisy", paired up with Oakes to win the mixed doubles.

The following year singles events were introduced.

Sidney H Smith became the first men's individual champion and Ethel Thompson the women's, a feat she was to accomplish on a further four occasions.

"Badminton players claim great strides in popularity over the last four years," claimed the Daily Mail newspaper in 1905.

The tournament itself was staged briefly at Crystal Palace and then at the London Rifle Brigade's city headquarters, before it found a regular venue at the Horticultural Hall in Vincent Square, not far from Victoria Station.

Shortly before the First World War, organisers were able to claim that entries for the tournament had outstripped previous records.

Even so, the tournament was held during the week, and some players used aliases to avoid detection of absenteeism from their employers.

One such was "UN Lapin" - French for "a rabbit" - used by champion Guy Sautter when he won the All England Championships before their interruption by the First World War.

Sautter was Swiss-born, but represented England in badminton.

When competition resumed in 1920, “the revival was attended with great enthusiasm," reports said.

The first four men’s singles competitions after the war were won by Sir George Thomas.

Previously he had been pre-eminent in doubles play and his overall tally of 21 titles gave him an unsurpassed place in the tournament annals as the most successful player.

When his playing days were over, Sir George became a leading figure in establishing the International Badminton Federation ,now known as the Badminton World Federation (BWF).

Thomas became the first International Federation President and, in 1939, suggested the creation of an international team tournament to be held on the same lines as the Davis Cup in tennis.

He presented a trophy which was later named in his honour although the first competition did not take place until 1948 because of the Second World War.

Thomas' exploits as a player were almost emulated by Ireland’s Frank Devlin who won six singles titles, five in succession, for a grand tally of 16 titles included seven men’s doubles and five mixed.

In the same era, Kathleen Godfree (née McKane) won five badminton titles.

Known to all as "Kitty", she was more famous for her tennis as Wimbledon singles champion in 1924 and 1926 and mixed doubles champion with husband Leslie also in 1926.

Godfree also won five Olympic tennis medals including a gold.

Margaret Tragett competed at the All England Championships over three decades and won 11 titles, all while combining badminton with her career as a novelist.

Her books were written using her maiden name Margaret Rivers Larminie.

"I cannot say I am undertaking any special training for the All England Championships," she wrote. "At the beginning of the season, two to three days practice is certainly necessary to play oneself in, but otherwise matches and tournaments crowd the calendar and take the place of practice."

Her books were written outside the badminton season. "I try not to combine them but segregate them," she said.

Copies of her novels are now scarce and fetch large sums at antiquarian book sales. She also put her writing skills to good use editing Gazette, the  popular official magazine on the sport.

Seeding was not introduced until the early 1930s and even then, the tournament threw up some curiosities.

Leoni Kingsbury won the ladies’ title in 1932.

Then in 1933 her sister Thelma dethroned her in the semi-finals.

"They might  have been perfect strangers, they were so concentrated on their task they did not once smile at one another," a newspaper report said at the time.

It took many years for the taboo of what women wore at the All England Championships to wear off ©Getty Images
It took many years for the taboo of what women wore at the All England Championships to wear off ©Getty Images

The following year the sisters did not meet until the final and this time it was Leoni who prevailed.

It was still a time when the media were obsessed with what women wore to play sport. 

The wearing of shorts for badminton proved particularly controversial. Even men did not do so until the mid 1930s.

There were few who could challenge Betty Uber on the court.

She won the mixed doubles eight times, three times with husband Herbert, and the Uber Cup for international women’s teams was named after her.

She had also been a pioneer in wearing shorts.

"I am unofficially not allowed to wear them," Uber told reporters. "Everytime I put on shorts, my women friends threaten that, unless I change into a dress they will do it for me."

In 1931, Jack Purcell, a Canadian stockbroker, started the trend of overseas players and reached the semi-finals. 

In 1935, players came from continental Europe for the first time. There was now representation from Denmark and The Netherlands.

"In two or three years, these Danes will be a danger to us," one player suggested.

His forecast proved more accurate than he had expected. "The strong challenge from abroad bespeaks the remarkable progress of the Games throughout the world," reported Stanley Doust, a former Australian tennis star in the Daily Mail newspaper.

In that final pre-war year, Tage Madsen of Denmark won the men's singles title with "a brilliant display of badminton." Reports said "he is as worthy of the title of champion as most previous winners."

Betty Uber won the mixed doubles eight times at the All England Badminton Championships ©Getty Images
Betty Uber won the mixed doubles eight times at the All England Badminton Championships ©Getty Images

For the first time, the women’s title moved away from the British Isles too, won by Canada's Dorothy Walton, and the Danish pairing of Ruth Dalsgaard and "Tonny" Olsen took the ladies’ doubles.

Such was the popularity of the sport that it was announced that the tournament would move to the larger Harringay arena in 1940.

War meant that that tournament never took place and it was not until 1947 that the All England Championships resumed, in a particularly harsh winter when snow was even seen inside the arena.

The winner was Conny Jepsen, Danish-born but representing Sweden.

The shape of the future was seen in 1949 when the Malaysian pairing of Ooi Teik Hock and Teoh Seng Khoon won the men’s doubles.

The following year, Singaporean Wong Peng Soon took the men’s singles title. This was played at the Empress Hall, Earls Court in West London.

"He has improved vastly since he came to England a year ago and is without doubt the hardest hitter of a shuttle in Europe or possibly the world today," international badminton official Herbert Scheele observed.

Wong's victory started a trend and not until 1958 did another European win the men's title.

Denmark’s Erland Kops proved a prolific champion with four in a row in the early 1960s. His career haul ended with an impressive six men’s singles titles.

By this time, Wembley Arena, close to the football stadium was the home for the competition.

In 1968, Kops lost in the semi-finals to Malaysia's Tan Aik Huang, himself a winner in 1966.

Malaysian Lee Chong Wei never captured Olympic gold but did twice win the All England Championships ©Getty Images
Malaysian Lee Chong Wei never captured Olympic gold but did twice win the All England Championships ©Getty Images

Tan did not win the tournament in 1968, for lying in wait on the other side of the draw was Indonesian star Rudy Hartono who won the first of seven successive titles.

In the women’s game, Hiroe Yuki of Japan was the first trailblazer for Asia.

She won four titles in her career.

It was at this time that an official individual World Championship was introduced for the first time. Even so, the All England maintained its prestige and in 1982 came perhaps the most significant development in the tournament's modern history.

For the first time, players from mainland China took part.

Their impact was immediate. Seven of the final eight in the women’s singles were Chinese.

Zhang Ailing took the title with victory over her compatriot Li Lingwei.

Lin Ying and Wu Dixi took the women’s doubles.

Zhang retained her singles title the following year before Li took over the mantle.

The All England Championships moved away from London to Birmingham in the 1990s but the Asian dominance continued.

A rare exception was BWF President Poul-Erik Høyer Larsen.

He won titles in 1995 and in 1996, to be followed by an Olympic gold medal in Atlanta.

The new millennium heralded the arrival of another generation of Chinese players.

Double Olympic singles gold medallist Lin Dan won the All England title with great regularity.

Almost inevitably, his victories included one over his great rival Lee Chong Wei from Malaysia.

The pair crossed racquets at almost every conceivable tournament.

Lee was a perennial silver medallist who never did win Olympic gold, but in 2011, he beat Lin to claim his second All England title.

China’s 2016 Olympic men’s singles champion Chen Long has also won twice in Birmingham.

Carolina Marín of Spain won the All England title as a prelude to Olympic gold in 2016 ©Getty Images
Carolina Marín of Spain won the All England title as a prelude to Olympic gold in 2016 ©Getty Images

Carolina Marín of Spain took the women's game by storm over the past decade. 

She had already won her first world title when she triumphed at the 2015 All England tournament, a year before her Olympic gold in Rio.

Injury prevented her from defending that title in Tokyo.

For this week’s tournament, Tokyo 2020 men’s singles champion Viktor Axelsen of Denmark has been named top seed.

His Olympic gold in 2021 followed his own first All England success in 2020.

In the women’s singles, China’s Olympic gold medallist Chen Yufei is only seeded third.

The top two seeds are 2020 All England champion Tai Tzu-ying of Chinese Taipei, who won Olympic silver in Tokyo, and Japan’s world champion Akane Yamaguchi.