Most Dutch people know badminton from playing it at the campsite. The goal is to keep the shuttlecock up in the air for as long as possible. This is very different from competitive badminton, where the aim is to hit the shuttlecock to the ground inside the opponent’s court as fast as you can. The trick in a sports hall is to react as quickly as you can, without the interference of wind, on an area of about 13.4 by 6.1 meters (5.18 meters for a single). A shuttlecock made of goose feathers is best suited for this. There have been experiments to replace the sixteen feathers with synthetic ones, but so far without the desired result.

Compared to tennis, badminton is a lot faster and more tactical. “The whole field is used to play on and most of your base is in the middle of the field”, says Ruud Bosch, multiple Dutch champion, former national team, trainer and national coach of the Dutch badminton team. “In tennis, the main focus is on the baseline, where they tend to move sideways much more than in all directions.” A badminton match lasts on average one hour and fifteen minutes, a tennis match more than three hours. Badminton players hardly stand still, there are constant smashes, lobbying, dashing and diving, turning and jumping. With doubles, it is even a bit faster and more dynamic than with singles, Bosch continues: “If you play doubles in badminton, you don’t just play on your own. The difference is just too much. Doubles are more tactical. You need a lot more sensitivity in the singles. Your movements take a little longer, you also run a bit more. Ankles instantly bear the brunt of any mistake you make. In doubles, someone else can pick up the play. Doubles entails more jumping too. To me, the doubles are more dynamic and spectacular.”

Slice through the air

Badminton is a sport in which there is a lot of innovation when it comes to materials, Bosch states. “Look at the Japanese company Yonex, market leader in badminton when it comes to innovation. This manufacturer always comes up with the latest shoes and racquets. They started eight years ago by modifying the frame so that the outer edges are more pointed. This makes it easier to slice through the air. Using this racquet, they broke the world record of the fastest speed for a smash to almost five hundred kilometers per hour.”

All the material has been updated, except for the goose feather skirt. How this looks today is almost the same as those of fifty years ago. Despite ten years of research, no alternative has yet been found. “Although there are versions that are satisfactory, but they do not reach the same quality as the goose feather type, ” says Bosch, who also tests shuttles for the national badminton association.

Dutch national team badminton doubles training © Innovation Origins

Bird flu

The quest for an alternative started during the bird flu crisis in Asia back in 2004. Then there was a near shortage of shuttlecocks, says Ian Wright, director of development at the Badminton World Federation (BWF). Until then, the federation had not interfered in the manufacturing process of the shuttles. “That’s still up to the manufacturer. But since then it has become an important issue for us. Partly because the number of badminton players is growing. More than 338 million people worldwide play badminton at least once a week. Just for that reason, it’s important to find an alternative.” And that is a tough thing to do, according to Wright. “Real feathers are great. A natural product with thousands of years of evolution behind it, which for instance allows a goose to fly as efficiently as possible.”

Players at the highest level only play with goose feather shuttles. Since the beginning of this year, the WCF along with several manufacturers have been experimenting with various alternatives to the goose feather shuttlecock. During three international tournaments, synthetic shuttles were used. These were matches just below the highest level of the World Tour championships. “The results are positive. But we find it unfair for those players competing in the qualifying rounds who are playing with a different quality of shuttlecock.” The synthetic type flies and spins through the air in other ways, says Wright. “We’ve noticed that players adapt to it quickly. Yet they do have to adapt.” That’s why the experiments have stopped and are to resume after the 2020 Games.

Feather shuttles can be used to great effect. Bosch: “The way in which the feathers are inserted into the cork determines whether the shuttlecock flies steadily through the air or not. If you hit the shuttle on the side or if you graze the shuttle, it slows down the flight or the shuttle flies in a direction. The extent of the effect is many times greater than that of a nylon shuttlecock. A synthetic ‘feather’ type is somewhere in between.” The feather shuttlecock’s features fit in with the game dynamics,” says Bosch. “It’s not an easy game. You have to be able to see and read patterns, remember tactics and execute them under pressure.”

Manufacturing process

Aside from the scarcity of the feathers, there are major costs involved with these shuttlecocks. The manufacturing process is precision work, which also means a lot of manual work. The factories are in Asia. Various videos on YouTube show how this process works. First hand-pick the feathers, as only a few are suitable. Then wash, dry, run through them again, customize the feathers: the right size and the right angle and then fit them into the cork. Before a shuttlecock is put into a case to be sold, factory workers test its flight capabilities, its spin. If something is wrong, the shuttlecock goes in the rubbish bin. There are different gradations: A = international, A, B, C, D. Only the very best are labelled ‘A international’ and are suited for competitions at the highest level.

Dutch national team badminton doubles training © Innovation Origins

“Shuttles are our main expense. They cost us between thirty and forty thousand euros a year,” says Bosch. That’ s why a replacement for the feather shuttlecock is more than welcome, says Bosch. “One that is more sustainable, lasts longer, and will be cheaper in the long run. We would be very happy about that as an association.” An average training requires three to four cases of twelve shuttlecocks. A case costs an average of thirty euros. Even more shuttlecocks are gone through during a tournament, the national coach explains. ” That’ s when you want the shuttlecock to be perfect.”

Cruelty to animals

Regarding potential cruelty to animals, Bosch says: “Yes, I’ve sometimes wondered about that. But I try to keep that to a minimum. Otherwise it becomes very difficult to play the game. It really doesn’t cheer you up when you use an animal’s feathers for people’s entertainment.” The WCF also has some insight into the distress that animals face. “Feathers are a by-product and therefore a part of the bird industry. The WCF stands for a socially responsible organization, nevertheless it has no say in the manufacturing process.”

Last week the Dutch badminton team participated in the World Championships in Basel, Switzerland. And last June, the women’s doubles won gold at the European Games and the men’s doubles won bronze. The team played in Basel chiefly for qualification points for the Olympic Games of 2020. The pair Robin Tabeling and Selena Piek won the fourth round and thereby the quarter final, which puts them in the top eight of the world.

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