Each week more than half a million people play badminton — more than cricket, tennis or rugby union — but in the Western Isles the sport has been on a long decline admits Western Isles Island Games Association Badminton Team Manager Paul Finnegan.
“But that’s all changing,” he beams excitedly as he chats to the Stornoway Gazette ahead of the forthcoming NatWest Island Games, held in Gotland, Sweden late next month.
“For me to compete in the Island Games it is all about the development of the sport in the Western Isles again and representing the islands at the Games.
“We have a number of young badminton players now playing at Highland badminton level and North of Scotland level. One boy, Keith Bray, is going forward to compete in the U11 National Championships in Glasgow.
“So the focus is to have a presence at the Island Games so these hugely promising youngsters can see this presence and see the Island Games as a level they can aspire to and keep badminton on the local sporting agenda.”
Finnegan is very likeable, a strong badminton player with a devilish left hand on the court but he is all about looking to the future and bringing badminton back to the forefront of the island sporting scene.
“We had Dan Travers over recently and he is a Commonwealth Games gold medallist and national coach and he picked out a couple of our youngsters and suggested they could be really, really good,” he continued.
“We have Beth and Keith who could be very strong, incredibly strong, national level players. But we have to keep pushing them and improving.
“One of the hardest challenges we have is keeping them interested in the sport.
Keith, for example, is an all-rounder and is very good at athletics, rugby and football too so keeping him in badminton isn’t easy.
“If we can keep him and Beth in we have potential medal winners in the future.”
Badminton is the second most popular participation sport in the world, with 2.5 million players just here in the UK. The fact that it’s an indoor game makes it a viable option for year-round play, too.
Heading for Gotland this summer is Paul and Kedar Paul with the pair set to compete in the Men’s singles events and also the doubles.
“We want to do as well as we can,” explained Finnegan.
“We are under no illusions that we might win gold but it is all about the development of the sport in the Western Isles and representing the islands at the Games.
“We have been training well, practising and playing. We did hope to enter a couple of tournaments but we didn’t manage which was a bit of a downer.
“We could have done with a bit more competition but we are training as hard as we can now until we head to Gotland in June.”
Finnegan competed in the last Island Games in Jersey 2015 and sampling the atmosphere of the ‘Friendly Games’ and the top-level standard understandably whetted his appetite for more.
“Jersey was just … fantastic,” he said after searching for the best word to use.
“What an experience it was and it really fired me up for these Games moving forward.
“To play at that kind of level was a real eye-opener and it was something I’d never had the opportunity to do before. For me it fired me up as the standard is not far off Commonwealth Games standard.
“It is a really, really high standard and the real incentive for anyone is to go to the Games and play and test themselves at this kind of level.”
Having chatted with the WIIGA Golf team last week they expressed a desire to win the battle of the Scots and finish ahead of Orkney and Shetland at the Games. This too would represent progress for Finnegan.
He added: “Orkney and Sheltand are a little ahead of us. They both say they have dropped off a bit due to numbers of people taking part but both of those islands are ahead of us in terms of structure.
“Their decline hasn’t been anywhere near the decline we have had and their club structure is very strong.
“Sheltand even medalled in the mixed doubles in Jersey so for us to beat any of the other Scottish islands would be a big plus and show real progress.”