Life on the badminton breadline has become a regimen of devotion for Sheffield’s Chloe Birch.
Train, play; train, play; email strangers asking for sponsorship.
Such is the life of an aspirant athlete on an under-funded minority sport in Britain.
At age 23 and as one of a handful of the best players in the country, most British athletes would be on a funding programme taking them all the way to the next Olympics.
Badminton, though, is one of those unfortunate sports marginalised by the barometer of medal success; UK Sport’s measuring stick on what constitutes a worthwhile investment for all their lottery millions. Even when Huddersfield’s Marcus Ellis and Chris Langridge met the sport’s medal target with a bronze in the men’s doubles at the Rio Olympics it was not enough to save badminton from the UK Sport’s following round of cuts.
Badminton lost all of its £5.5m of funding in December 2016, regaining only a meagre £630,000 on appeal a year later.
Your love for the sport means you do what you have to do to keep playing. You keep trying to portray that badminton is a great sport. Across the world it’s a very well supported sport.Chloe Birch
It left the likes of Ellis playing in professional leagues in India to make ends meet and Birch hitting the emails every day to try to fund her way to Tokyo.
“It’s hard sometimes for badminton to get sponsorship, so we do everything we can,” said Birch, who is one of the few players good enough to receive aspiration funding from Badminton England.
“For instance, I’m sending emails out every lunchtime to see if I can get sponsorship. I live in the south where it’s not cheap to live.
“We have sponsorship spaces on the shirts we play in. Any extra sponsors, we’re always looking for. But we’re competing against mainstream sports so we’re not at the top of the list to get that backing.
“But your love for the sport means you do what you have to do to keep playing. You keep trying to portray that badminton is a great sport. Across the world it’s a very well supported sport.”
As will be evidenced this week in Birmingham, when 155 matches will be played across five formats and five days at the Yonex All England Championships. It is the blue riband badminton event this country hosts, an important marker for the year ahead and also a key shop window for Birch and her compatriots.
Birch arrives in Birmingham playing as well as she has ever done. Having played since the age of eight at her local club Abbeydale, in Sheffield – she received the Michael Vaughan Award from Silverdale School – she took the decision aged 18 to divide her time between education and badminton.
Birch earned a degree at Loughborough University and combined her studies with travelling down to the national badminton centre in Milton Keynes to train. After graduating she went full-time on the national programme and the ability to dedicate herself completely to the sport has accelerated her development.
Final appearances in the singles events at Badminton World Federation level followed, there were even titles won in the doubles, before a bronze medal as part of the mixed team at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia confirmed to Birch that she was on the right path.
“Commonwealth Games is one of the biggest stages you can play on,” she says. “I beat some good players and got close to beating some really top players.
“It made me realise I do belong at that level. Last year was probably one of my best years yet. Hopefully I can take that into 2019, keep progressing and keep challenging the best in the world.
“We’ve got the European Games, the World Championships this year and Olympic qualification begins in May. It’s an exciting year.”
Tokyo is the medium-term goal, with the doubles presenting her with a likely route to an Olympic debut.
Since September she has been paired full-time with the more experienced Lauren Smith. They have won two tournaments together and are developing all the time. Birch will also contest the singles this week – “my Yorkshire grit ensures I never let anything touch the floor. People don’t like playing against that”.
Other Yorkshire names to follow this week are Olympic bronze medallist Ellis and Leeds’s Gabby Adcock, the twice Commonwealth Games gold medallist with her mixed doubles partner and husband Chris.
“We’re a small sport in Britain and weeks like this are a chance to showcase our sport,” added Birch.