Eye on the Birdie

As is true with many of our beloved childhood games, the legacy of badminton is muddied by time: it might have begun in India as a game called Poona, or in China as a game called ti jian zi. Japan and Greece had their Battledore, played with a shuttlecock and paddle. Even the game’s introduction in Europe has several stories and dates attached to it.

Most sources say that the game became “Badminton” thanks to the Duke of Beaufort, whose Gloucestershire estate the game was named after. Depending on which tale you believe, the Duke was either taken with the game when he saw fresh-from-India British soldiers playing it, or he discovered it while in India himself. Either way, he introduced the game to his guests at a soirée in 1873. Within four short years, the game became so popular that an official club for Badminton formed in Bath, England, and an official set of rules quickly followed.

The game of badminton is played by two or four players. The shuttlecock (also known as the “birdie”) is often made of plastic today, but tradition says it should consist of 16 goose feathers stuck in a cork. The goal of the game is to hit the birdie once over the net to your opponent’s side, and your opponent is tasked with returning the shuttlecock in the same manner. If the return doesn’t happen, you win a rally—win enough rallies and you win the game.

Badminton came to North America in the late 1800s and spread across the continent. It became so beloved that in 1934 the game went from silly pastime to serious sport with the founding of what is now the Badminton World Federation.

Badminton debuted as a demonstration sport at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972, but it was not officially on the program until the 1992 Barcelona Games. Spectators could watch competition in men’s and women’s singles and doubles events. In 1996 in Atlanta, mixed doubles teams joined the program.

Though most casual games are played on beaches and lawns, serious play happens inside, so as not to be hostage to wind and weather—not that these conditions could stop a birdie from rocketing through the air. A 2010 study in France called “The Physics of Badminton” proved these shuttlecocks can achieve speeds of more than 300 miles per hour. Keep your eye on the birdie—if you can!