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Badminton: Players told skirts will boost bottom line
QINGDAO, China - Badminton's biggest controversy in years involves not cheating, not drugs, but skirts, with crunch talks on Saturday set to decide on a saga which has divided the sport.
At a showdown in the Chinese seaside city of Qingdao, badminton's chiefs will attempt to convince doubtful associations that a new ruling forcing women players to wear skirts or dresses is not sexist, but a smart marketing tool.
The move caused such uproar that its enforcement has already been delayed by a month, but the sport's Kuala Lumpur-based top brass appear confident of persuading critics it's a crucial gambit to improve badminton's bottom line.
"The reason we want the skirt regulation is to promote women's events, which are getting less and less popular," Badminton World Federation deputy president Paisan Rangsikitpho said during the ongoing Sudirman Cup in Qingdao.
"The bottom line is: they could earn more sponsorship and more money."
He had previously stressed that it "has never been the intention of the BWF to portray women as sexual objects, and nor is that what we are doing".
China, Indonesia and India are among a host of countries who have raised fierce objections, while in Malaysia, the opposition Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) called for a boycott of tournaments.
With the new directive set to come into force on June 1, even players are torn. The rule says skirts or dresses must be worn, even if they are over the top of shorts or trousers.
"I think it's a little bit ridiculous," said Ragna Ingolfsdottir of Iceland, who chooses to wear a skirt because she finds it less restrictive.
"Some girls here just want to wear shorts because they think it's more comfortable, so why make them wear skirts if they don't want to?
"I don't think it's about sexism, but will it make more people watch? I don't know. I don't think in Iceland it matters but somewhere in the world perhaps it does."
Ingolfsdottir admitted the publicity over the issue -- though not all of it has been good -- had at least raised the sport's profile.
"There are different views on it and in some ways the publicity is good, but for the players that don't like it, it's not good for them. But maybe it's good for badminton as a whole," she told AFP.
Hong Kong's Chau Hoi Wah is very much in the shorts camp. "I don't really see the point in women having to wear skirts," she said, adding shorts were more comfortable and "more appropriate" when stretching for a shot.
"I know it's to attract sponsors, but isn't there another way it can be done? Are people really going to come and watch because a girl is wearing a skirt or a tank-top? And if they are, are they really supporting badminton?"
But many players at the Sudirman Cup said they had no issue with the ruling. "It's okay for me," said Yun Peng, who was born in China but plays for the United States.
"Before I wore shorts, but now I wear a skirt. There's not much difference, but I think skirts are good for the sport because girls look nicer, a bit like they do in tennis."
Renuga Veeran, who plays for Australia, had split feelings. "I think it's a good rule because all the players will look standardised, though I know a lot of girls are really comfortable in shorts.
"I don't think they (BWF) can just make a rule saying everyone has to wear a skirt because that could affect some people's performance. For me, I always wear a skirt and I'm good with it.
"But some people say it's sexist."
Her doubles partner and brother, Raj, suspected the whole controversy may be a ploy. "Publicity-wise it's been quite big. It might even be a publicity stunt," he said.