SPOTLIGHT – From Belarus to Beijing and Beyond

When we think of the game of badminton and in particular the super powers of the game images of China, Malaysia and Indonesia are immediately conjured up in our minds. […]

When we think of the game of badminton and in particular the super powers of the game images of China, Malaysia and Indonesia are immediately conjured up in our minds. If I asked you to consider Europe your initial, and justified reaction would be to mention Denmark, England, Germany, The Netherlands and probably France. If I asked you to delve further into your knowledge of the game of badminton and mention a few more European countries that have at some point had an impact on the game of Badminton, probably the last European country you would think of is Belarus. With the emergence of Olga Konon, the 18-year-old Belarusian wonder kid, the face of badminton in this small European nation is about to change.

By Mark Phelan Badzine Correspondent. Photos: (archive)

Sport in the blood: Olga Konon was born in the city of Brest, on the Polish Belarusian border on the 11th of November 1989 and is the eldest of two girls. Sport was always in her family as both her parents were keen athletes and excelled in track and field and close family friends had also represented their country in the Olympic Games and International track and field. As a child Olga was obviously exposed to the track and she attributes her current extraordinary will to achieve and win down to watching and observing her parents and their friends excel in athletics though her informative years. Olga herself followed in her parents footsteps and literally found her feet running the 200m and 400m for her local club in Brest and today can still run a mean 400 metres.

At the age of six Olga found her way indoors to the badminton court. Luckily her local club was only about 400 metres down the road and a quick sprint was all that Olga required to get to her local court. The badminton bug hit as soon as she lifted a racket for the first time. Her focus soon moved from the track to the indoor courts and it became very clear to her parents that Badminton was the sport she truly loved and like all loving parents they supported her in her decision. Olga combined the track with her new found passion for badminton and combined both up to the age of 14. But badminton became her focus and before long she decided that the court was where she well and truly belonged.

The first day I picked up a badminton racket I knew I wanted to be a professional badminton player. My parents were key in this decision. There was a sporting spirit all around me when I was young and this spirit rubbed off on me. Sport was just in my blood and the sport for me was badminton,” Olga recalls.

Junior badminton, Not Olga: Olga’s talent for the game did not go unnoticed and before long her home federation had got word of a young girl in Brest who was showing great potential. She continued to play and practise and remarkably she made her first senior international appearance for Belarus at the tender age of 12 in the Uber Cup in The Netherlands in February 2002. Even at such a young age Olga won both doubles games she was involved in during that tournament against Ireland and Norway. Olga continued to practise hard and in October of that year the whole International badminton community became acutely aware of her developing talent as Olga, along with her partner, claimed the runners up spot at the Czech International a feat which she repeated the following year in the mixed event.

Olga’s first major international win came in 2004 at the Finnish International in the mixed event with a fellow Belarusian Andrey Konakh. Olga was only 14 at the time so was unable to participate in the singles event as she was just not physically developed enough to tackle the rigours of International singles competition.

She recalls that event with pride. “I remember that tournament fondly. It was my first big win and we were 14-7 down in the third set and it was the old rules remember. We came back that day and won the match and from that point on I knew that nothing is impossible if you fight and fight to the end” That was a senior international tournament and I was only 14. It still sends shivers down my back.

Down to Earth with a bang: Olga’s career seemed to be going from strength to strength on the back of the win in Finland. People now knew the name Olga Konon and Europe was excited about the prospect of a new talent bursting onto the International scene to try and break the dominance of the Asian countries. But life has a cruel way of stopping you in your tracks, and Konon being human after all, was susceptible to injuries just like any other athlete.

In 2005 Konon suffered an horrific knee ligament injury at the Swedish International. At the time of the injury she didn’t think there was to much wrong as she did not feel much pain and could walk properly. Even her doctors didn’t think there was to much to worry about and the diagnosis was to take a month off to rest and then start training and playing again. At that time Olga had already been selected by the IBF to take part in the intensive 2 year Olympic training programme at Saarbrucken in Germany. Konon went to Germany motivated and ready to train but she soon realised that she could not apply full pressure to her knee as it became terribly unstable. Immediately she was sent for a scan and it was only then the full extent of the damage was realised. With the help of Guenther Huber, Olga was scheduled for an operation on 2nd October 2006. The operation was a success and she immediately commenced a 5 month rehabilitation programme in Saarbrucken.

All the time on her mind was the fact the European Junior Championships were coming up in April 2007 and that was her last chance as a junior to win a medal and this was important for her and her country. This was now Konon’s goal and objective to get back and play in the European Juniors. Her doctors advised her that there was no way she would be ready and she was forbidden from actually even going on a court to train for the 5 months of her rehabilitation. It was not until 2 weeks before the Euro Juniors in 2007 that Konon eventually got back onto a court to hit a shuttle for the first time in 5 months. She recalls “I was absolutely breathless on court and everyday I was fighting the fear of something going wrong with my leg. But more than anything I was just enjoying the feeling of being able to hit a shuttle again.

The European Juniors that year were held in Saarbrucken and all Olga’s friends and coaches were there to witness the miracle as Konon came away with the women’s doubles gold and even more remarkably with the bronze in the women’s singles event. All this with only two weeks practise and no competitive tournament play before the Europeans!

Olga remembers the events of that day: “In the doubles I was seeded 5th with Kristina Ludikova as we had reached the semi final in our previous championships but in the singles I was not seeded at all. To be honest I was concentrating mostly on the doubles as I really did not believe I had a chance in the singles event after two weeks training. All of a sudden I had advanced through the tournament and before I knew it I had won the women’s doubles. I lost my semi final in the singles but for me that whole tournament had been like a miracle. To this day I still cant believe how I managed to win after only 2 weeks practise and every time I think of it I get goose pimples on my skin. That tournament was a new start for me and the race for the was now on. I really believe God was looking down on me for those vital months and I truly have God to thank for my recovery and giving me the opportunity to play the sport I love.

Toulouse and The Olympics: After her European junior success in 2007 Olga now had her sights firmly set on Olympic qualification. This was to prove a difficult task for Konon as she had no ranking so as a result had to go through the gruelling task of qualification for all the major tournaments in an effort just to make the first round proper. In July 2007 Konon made the breakthrough in her singles career by getting to the final of the White Nights Tournament in Russia. En route to the final Konon beat number 2 seed Kati Tolmoff of Estonia only to lose out to Kanoko of Japan in the final. 2008 saw a continued improvement in Konon’s form and in January she reached the semi final of the Swedish international only to lose out to eventual winner Li Wenyan of China 21-18, 22-20 in a close semi final. Her big breakthrough came in June of this year when she won her first major singles tournament in Toulouse. Unseeded for the event Konon disposed of Jill Pittard en route to the final and in the final itself beat the favourite Susan Hughes by a score line of 21-18, 21-12.

Konon’s consistent good form on the European tour elevated her from world ranking obscurity to a career high of 41 and all this at just the age of 18. With Olympic participation assured Konon now has the badminton world in her hands. With her injury well and truly behind her the likeable Belarusian is sure to figure in the women’s singles melting pot in Beijing and don’t be surprised if there are a few Belarusian upsets along the way.

About Mark Phelan