Asia’s traditional supremacy in the Olympic badminton competitions was dented at Rio 2016 when Spaniard Carolina Marin won gold in the women’s singles. It was a historic achievement for Spain and indeed Europe, and the climax in the career of a young player who had battled the odds to reach the top of her sport.
Born in 1993 in Huelva, Marin started playing badminton aged eight and was instantly hooked, despite coming from a household where nobody had played the sport before. Starting her early career at IES La Orden badminton club, she was first spotted by coach Fernando Rivas aged 13 during an under-15s match, in which her speed and strength marked her out as “extraordinary”, in his words.
Spain has no real pedigree in this sport, which has long been dominated by players from China. Rivas describes the obstacles to success for a Spanish badminton player thus: “They have to work much harder, to fight against the lack of tradition, there is no club system to help players grow and there is a lack of competition to challenge the best players.” The challenge for Rivas to help Marin fulfil her dreams, therefore, was immense.
In 2007, Marin’s parents allowed her to move to Madrid to train full-time with Rivas. Under his wing, Marin achieved a landmark title in 2009, becoming Spain’s first ever under-17 European Juniors champion. In 2010, she took part in the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, where she reached the quarter-finals: her first taste of an Olympic environment. Three years later, she became the first Spanish player to win a Grand Prix event. Then in 2014, she won the gold medal at the European Championships, and that same year, seeded ninth, she exceeded all expectations at the BWF World Championships in Denmark by defeating Li Xuerui from China to win another gold to become the youngest European world champion ever, at just 21. In 2015, the Spanish star successfully defended her world title and won several other Super Series titles.
She arrived at Rio 2016 as the number one seed, and full of confidence with eyes firmly set on the gold. In the final against Pusarla Venkata Sindhu from India, Marin prevailed in a three-set encounter that lasted 83 minutes.
The Spaniard’s victory prompted a hero’s welcome on her return home, with the streets filled with people shouting her name and Huelva even naming a sports venue after her. Her Olympic success has also played a big part in raising the profile of badminton in Spain.
“It’s great that a girl from Huelva, a far corner of Spain, can suddenly become the best in the world,” said the Olympic champion.
“We have won the respect of the badminton world,” added Rivas. “Now when we go to Asia, Spain isn’t a strange team, they respect us, they greet us. It’s a great feeling.”