Explained: Why is it tough for badminton to resume?

Looking at why badminton cannot be compared to football and tennis is a reason that's central to the sport: badminton is played indoors.

With European football leagues and tennis Grand Slams underway – albeit under fortifying bubbles – the refrain across the badminton world is why the Thomas Uber Cup (TUC) scheduled for October 3-11 at Aarhus, Denmark, was driven to cancellation and postponement. While the Danish hosts had proposed a ‘bubble,’ the withdrawals cascaded fast and thick. It started with the withdrawal of Chinese Taipei, Australia, Thailand, South Korea but it was the exit of 13-time Thomas Cup champions Indonesia that proved to be the final straw. Looking at why badminton cannot be compared to football and tennis is a reason that’s central to the sport: badminton is played indoors.

Why did teams withdraw?

Indonesian players were not too keen as they were worried about being infected by COVID-19 from the outset, be it traveling, in transit, or during the tournament. “Secondly, the players and officials were skeptical because the BWF (Badminton World Federation) could not guarantee that nobody will be affected by the coronavirus,” read a statement by the Badminton Association of Indonesia (PBSI).

What were the gaps in the proposed bubble for the Thomas Uber Cup?

For starters, badminton was not planning to enforce a seven to 14 day quarantine period for players in Denmark. The organisers were also not insisting on four negative tests in that period, a safety protocol followed by the NBA. The host nation allowed gatherings of upto 500 people when the tournament was announced in late July, and there was talk of organisers opening a section, that is cut-off from players and coaches, of the stands for untested spectators. But the indoor air recirculation complicated the matter.

What separated badminton’s plans from football and tennis? The biggest hurdle is that badminton is an indoor-sport. There were also concerns about handling doorknobs, players spending time in enclosed warm-up areas and the shuttle changing hands. Combined with the necessity of air-conditioning and closed ventilation, badminton is nothing like the wide expanse of a football field or open skies of tennis.

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What are the concerns for indoor sports centres?

After the Dutch government deferred plans for opening indoor arenas, a group of Dutch researchers (B.Blockenab, T.van Druenena, T.van Hooffab, P.A.Verstappenc, T.Marchalde and L.C.Marrf) observed in a scientific paper that the decision was made due to concerns “about the increased amount of aerosols expired during physical exercise that can remain in the air for a long duration.”

The paper further stated that “there is evidence that deep exhalation (as with physical exercise) produces more aerosols, and there are indications of SARS-CoV-2 infection in 12 fitness dance classes in South Korea and recent studies do suggest that asymptomatic carriers can transfer the SARS-CoV-2 virus.” The viability of the virus to survive in microscopic droplets (i.e. aerosols) called for precaution. The study was substantiated by an earlier research project led by R.Mittal, that notes that, “even though breathing generates droplets at a much lower rate, it probably accounts for more expired bi-aerosols over the course of a day than intermittent events such as coughing and sneezing.”

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Why is air-conditioning a cause for concern?

Air-conditioning drift is an inseparable part of international badminton with players with greater shuttle control in these winds expected to dominate the sport. While Asian arenas necessitate air-conditioning to circulate air and breathe inside those cauldrons, Europe too uses air-conditioning for heating purposes. A majority of indoor facilities are equipped with mixing ventilation systems which recirculates air that leads to overall higher aerosol concentrations in the enclosure

Are spectators and air-conditioned halls a risky proposition?

Absolutely. In another research project led by Y.Li, the paper studied the role of ventilation in the airborne transmission of infectious agents in buildings. “They concluded that there is clear evidence of an association between ventilation, air movement in buildings and the transmission/spread of infectious diseases such as influenza and SARS…. Indeed, ventilation implies air movement and also aerosol movement inside the building, and in some cases the ventilation system uses recirculation of part of the exhausted air back to the inside, which, in case of infectious diseases, is undesirable,” the paper stated. The possibility of spectators being allowed inside may defeat the purpose of social distancing in the venue.

What can ensure safety in badminton?

Even a closed, spectator-free bubble will need to change things around.

“In a hall with 5 courts, only alternate courts ought to be used with an empty court in between,” says renowned physio and trainer Dr Nikhil Lately. Besides strict sanitising, players will be need to wear masks as soon as they step off court. “Sanitising itself will take longer as after spraying, it takes 10 minutes to kick in and ensure the court is completely sterile. So that’s longer breaks because the floor can’t be wet and players sweat a lot,” he adds. Tournaments on the whole will need to be staggered which might mean longer than 5 days. BWF did change a few rules to boost safety – such as removing the qualification round, allowing only one coach, shuttles disposed into boxes.

But badminton might force more improvisations owing to its indoor nature. “They could throw a full length plastic see through screen between spectators and players,” Latey says.

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