The BWF World Championships stand alongside the Olympics as the ultimate test for any badminton player. Since its beginnings in 1977, the event has evolved over 26 editions. DON HEARN takes us on a historical journey.
The BWF World Championships may be relatively new compared to the history of organised competition in the sport, but the event did not take long to grow into the true test of the top individual players and pairs in world badminton. First held in 1977, the World Championships grew to a top-flight global competition which, in its 20th edition, saw the participation of 345 athletes from 47 member associations and was broadcast in high-definition to television viewers throughout the globe.
The All England Championships were already functioning as an unofficial world championship for the individual disciplines. While from the late 1940s, the Thomas Cup — and later the Uber Cup — offered a unique opportunity for men’s and women’s teams to prove themselves as the world’s best, athletes were already able to prove themselves individually. The All England had been providing that opportunity with class and prestige and a tradition that dated back to the dawn of the 20th century.
However, while England may have welcomed the best in the world, there was still room for a world championships. When Sweden hosted the first IBF World Championships in 1977, it was a first step for an event that would soon travel and grow into a global tradition. By the time the fourth edition ended, the Worlds had been seen in three continents.
The early winners
The big winner at the inaugural Worlds in 1977 was Denmark. Danish shuttlers descended on their northern neighbours and took three of the five titles, with Lene Køppen winning gold in both singles and doubles. At the 1980 event in Jakarta, hosts Indonesia took all but one title.
China made its entry at the 1983 edition and made its presence felt by winning gold in Women’s Singles and doubles. Korea too, was a first-time participant, and 19-year-old Park Joo Bong in particular, left Copenhagen with one bronze, but he was back two years later to win his first and second of five career World Championship titles.
Team China bounced back even stronger. The Chinese won the remaining three titles in 1985 in Calgary and made a truly indelible mark on the next edition by sweeping all five gold medals, something that would happen twice more, in 2010 and 2011. In the third of these title sweeps by China, the Men’s Singles title was won by Lin Dan, who went on to equal Park’s mark of five World Championship titles; only the Chinese superstar did it all in one discipline.
An annual summer fixture
The BWF World Championships began as a triennial event, filling the year left vacant between the Thomas Cup and Uber Cup. After the third edition in 1983, the event became biennial, alternating with the two team championships, which became a combined biennial event from 1984. Two decades later, the frequency changed again and the 2006 IBF World Championships in Madrid marked the first time the Worlds had been held in consecutive years. The event continued as a nearly annual affair, taking a break only once every four years, when the Olympic Games would take over as the major event of the summer.
The original rules required member associations to submit their player entries to the IBF (now BWF) in advance with a maximum of four entries in most disciplines and two for men’s and women’s doubles. When more than 64 players entered in a discipline, a qualifying event was held less than a week before the start of the main draw, which followed a knockout format.
As the IBF developed its world ranking system, this became the basis for determining qualified players. The number of participants varied over the years, as did the limits on entries per member association in one discipline, with some teams able to send as many as six men’s singles players in the early 1990s.
The BWF rules on qualification became more streamlined in 2010. A maximum of four entries per discipline could be invited from any one member association and at least one representative in each discipline was invited from each of the five continental confederations.
In all categories, the competition has become intense, and no country is able to dominate it in the manner they used to.
The first World Championships were held in 1977 in Malmo (Sweden).
In the beginning, the World Championships were conceived as a triennial event. The event debuted in 1977 and the next two editions were in 1980 and 1983. From the fourth edition (1985) on, it became a biennial event. This continued until 2005, after which it became an annual event. The World Championships are now held every year except during the Olympic years. An exception was 2021, when the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and the World Championships 2021 were held in the same year due to the postponement of the Olympics from 2020.
China have been the most dominant nation, winning 67 gold medals. The second highest is Indonesia, with 23 gold medals, followed by Denmark and Korea.
USA’s Howard Bach/Tony Gunawan won Men’s Doubles gold at the 2005 World Championships in Anaheim, USA. New Zealand’s Daniel Shirley/Sara Runesten-Petersen won Mixed Doubles bronze at the same event.
China’s Zhao Yunlei holds the overall record with 10 medals, including 5 gold, 2 silver and three bronze.
Among the men, Lin Dan (China) and Park Joo Bong have the highest number of titles, with five gold medals each. Among the women, Zhao Yunlei is the record holder, also with five gold medals.