Indonesia Struck Gold, But What’s Next?
This year’s Independence Day celebration was the 71st for Indonesia, and it was made sweeter when Liliyana Natsir and Tontowi Ahmad won the gold medal in badminton mixed doubles at the Rio 2016 Olympics on the very same day. It was Indonesia’s seventh gold medal at the Summer Olympics and a welcomed one after failing to win a single gold medal at the London 2012 Olympics.
There was an air of dominance as Natsir and Ahmad cruised to the top podium in Rio 2016. The pair did not lose a single game throughout the competition, and won all of their games in straight sets. The Malaysian pair of Chan Peng Soon and Goh You Ling, their opponents in the gold medal game, was vanquished not once, but twice (they previously met in the group stage). It made for a far more comfortable watching compared to the triumphs in Beijing 2008, Athens 2004, or Sydney 2000.
Now with the games in the rearview mirror, it beckons the question can Indonesia maintain or even improve upon this result in four years’ time at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility as Indonesia has a good selection of young talents that can grow into future stars, but there are considerable challenges too going forward.
Let’s start with the winning pair of Natsir and Ahmad. The two has been partners since 2010, and if they elect to continue their partnership into the next Olympic cycle, it will take their partnership into the 10th year mark. While it is not unprecedented (Fu Haifeng and Cai Yun of China competed in the men’s doubles for eight years, Candra Wijaya and Sigit Budiarto was partners for close to 10 years, although they changed partners at some stages of their careers), there are several reasons why this might be the last we see of Natsir and Ahmad. For one, Natsir will soon be 31, while Tontowi is 29. At Tokyo 2020, they will be 35 and 33 respectively, an age where they will either be in decline or just began to decline, especially in a sport that place a huge emphasis on speed and athleticism. Either one of them might call it quits between now and the Tokyo games.
For many athletes, the Olympic games represents the pinnacle of their career. The same is likely for Natsir and Ahmad. Having won the gold medal, what’s left to win? Should they stay on together, motivating themselves to maintain such a high level of performances well into their 30’s is certainly a challenge. We might also see the pair broken up and paired with new players in order to freshen things up, which serves the double purpose of regeneration and mentoring of young players while also covering deficiencies in their game as they aged.
Furthermore, countries such as China, South Korea, and Japan are going nowhere as superpowers in badminton. These countries have several players in singles or doubles that made the top 10 of BWF World Rankings. We should expect that their grip on the sport to continue. The only category where Indonesia has multiple players in the top 10? Mixed doubles, where Natsir and Ahmad are joined by their younger counterpart, Debby Susanto and Praveen Jordan.
Realistically, Indonesia’s best hope for gold in Tokyo 2020 lies with another pair or even in other categories. A quick look at BWF’s World Rankings gives some reasons for optimism. Indonesia has a robust roster of players in the doubles category, excluding those who made it to Rio. These players are ranked within the top 25 of BWF World Rankings, and are all in their early 20’s or mid 20’s. By the time the next summer games comes around, they will be entering their prime and can either stick with their current partners or potentially be paired with the currently in prime players that made the team this summer.
Thus, it is up to the sports ministry and PBSI (Indonesia’s badminton governing body) to continue and develop these players if we want to continue our gold tradition in badminton. In the current qualification system for the Olympics, a country can send more than a pair of players provided they are ranked within the top eight of BWF World Rankings in the doubles category (and more than one player in the singles category if they are in the top 16). Taking advantage of this rule and focusing on the development of the available young talents should give hope that the gold tradition in badminton continues in Tokyo.