The new normal arrived at the world’s oldest and most prestigious badminton event on Wednesday. Between points of immense speed and devilish subtlety, 180mph jump shots and wristy dinks, there were frequent announcements reminding the crowd at the Arena Birmingham to wash their hands. At the Amstel beer stand there were more hand sanitisers than pumps. And when the matches finished many players shuffled tentatively to the net, unsure how best to acknowledge their opponents. A polite nod of the head was far more common than a handshake.

Yet this is where we are in Covid‑19 era. At least for now. In a fortnight’s time, the thought of large crowds being allowed to watch live sport in the flesh might sound dangerously mad.

But at the All England Open on Wednesday, which has a prize fund of $1m and a global audience of around 250 million, the overwhelming sensation among the players was relief at being back on court. Some major badminton tournaments, including one in Germany last week, have been cancelled. Others in Switzerland and India this month are expected to be played behind closed doors. Hearing applause is fast becoming a novel feeling.

As Nozomi Okuhara, the Japanese player who won bronze at the 2016 Olympics, put it after her first-round victory: “The fans asked me for my autograph after the game. They didn’t show any discrimination to Japanese players at all. I feel warm.”

Another player, Kenta Nishimoto, made a point of praising the British government and the badminton governing bodies for allowing the competition to go ahead – despite many sporting events being postponed across the globe.

Speaking to the Guardian, Adrian Christy, chief executive of Badminton England, admitted he had been worried if the tournament would go ahead – but extensive consultations with Public Health England over the past two months had persuaded him it was the right decision.

“The government has repeatedly said it is satisfied that major sporting events pose no significant risk for the public, and the medical advice has been the same. That gave me the reassurance that the event was safe to go on.”



Pusarla Venkata Sindhu is at the All England Open but has reservations as to whether the Olympics should be delayed. Photograph: Badminton Photo

Christy admitted that audience figures are likely to be down because of the coronavirus – but insisted the arena will still be “humming” during the later stages. “I promise you that the health and wellbeing of anybody connected with our event – whether it is fans, players or coaches – is our No 1 priority. And if I ever felt that we might be stepping over a line into a risk area I would have stopped the event. I wouldn’t have hesitated.”

The organisers have doubled the number of hand sanitisers in the arena and have even set up an isolation unit in case anyone suddenly feels ill. But there are no hard and fast rules on whether players should shake hands.

When the Danish player Mia Blichfeldt beat her Thai opponent Busanan Ongbamrungphan she started with a nod, then tried a fistpump before settling on a high‑five. Some players are more cautious: the Japanese team have apparently been advised not to shake hands with opponents as a precaution.

Meanwhile as Britain’s best players try to earn enough qualifying points to get to the Tokyo 2020 Games they, too, have to weigh up the potential rewards with the risks of travelling to pursue their dream.

That battle is particularly sharp in the mixed doubles where Lauren Smith and Marcus Ellis, who are ranked 11th in the world, are battling it out with their compatriots Chris and Gabby Adcock, who are two places below them, for the one Olympic spot.

Smith said: “We have got five tournaments in a row now and we are supposed to go to Singapore and Malaysia in a few weeks. If our government and our association say it is safe to go then we will go.”

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Such has been the effect of the coronavirus that most of the top Chinese players have been in Britain for the past three weeks as a precaution. When asked of her reflections of Birmingham Chen Yufei, the world’s No 1 women’s player, smiled before saying: “It rains quite a bit, doesn’t it?

“I am a little bit worried about my family and friends in China because of the coronavirus but the authorities are doing a good job so my focus is on my game.”

Unsurprisingly most players don’t want to entertain the possibility of the Tokyo Games being postponed – at least not yet. However the Indian superstar Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, who won a silver medal at the 2016 Games, believes the International Olympic Committee should seriously consider whether they should go ahead in August.

“We need to be on the safer side,” she said. “It is really very serious and spreading everywhere. Hopefully the Games will go ahead – but there might have to be a bit of a postponement. If we have to wait a few months more to play, that would be fine.”

But for now, though, Sindhu and her fellow players have their eyes firmly on one of the biggest prizes in her sport. “This is the best open badminton tournament in the world,” insists Christy. “This is the one they all want to win. And when you come here, and you see the pace, the speed and power and the excitement that is generated you understand why.”

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