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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SportsFebruary 25, 2024

The Black what? How the New Zealand badminton team got sport’s worst nickname

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

It’s an eyebrow-raising name that’s stuck in the memory of all who heard it – but were our badminton players really officially known as the ‘Black Cocks’?

Peter Dunne feigns hanging up the phone the moment I ask him if he is the former CEO of Badminton New Zealand. 

“OK, bye,” he chuckles, anticipating the line of questioning coming over the net.

I’m calling because I want to know how the New Zealand badminton team ended up with a nickname that’s made my recent internet search history difficult to explain. Were they ever really officially called the “Black Cocks”? 

New Zealand’s sporting associations have long had an obsession with clever team nicknames. In the long shadow of the All Blacks, one of our most marketable and globally recognised brands, a long list of derivatives has been attached to just about every other national team. The Silver Ferns, the Black Ferns, the All Whites, the Black Sox, the White Ferns – but what about badminton?

Dunne remembers when it all started. “The Aussies were coming over to play us for the Whyte Trophy,” he explains, casting aside his initial hesitancy to speak. “It was about that time that a lot of sporting teams were sort of adopting nicknames.”

In 2005, Hockey New Zealand officially adopted their own eyebrow-raising, don’t-say-it-too-fast nickname, with the men’s team becoming the Black Sticks. It soon became clear the direction badminton had to take. “With the shuttlecock, the Black Cocks became, to a certain extent, a little bit obvious,” Dunne says sheepishly.

The name was first circulated around the organisation in 2004, with hopes of attracting attention from the public, media and, perhaps most importantly, sponsors. By the 2005 Whyte Trophy series, the press were cock-a-hoop for the concept.

The players didn’t seem to mind it, either, with high-profile team members such as Dan Shirley, Sarah Runesten-Petersen and Rebecca Bellingham all telling the media they were on board – something Dunne insists was key to progressing the idea.

Having rallied support, Badminton NZ were all set to go official with the Black Cocks nickname in August 2005. But within a month, their plans had gone limp. The International Badminton Federation baulked at the proposition, while the reaction from member associations at home was mixed. 

Dunne admits that the idea was always a bit tongue-in-cheek – a marketing ploy to drum up interest in a sport often forgotten by funding bodies, sponsors and the media. 

“Look, we were teasing a wee bit,” he says. “I think that’s the right word to use. We were sort of happy to have it out there and then run for cover if we had to. 

“But we never had to. It was never made official, though it created a lot of interest and good humour. I think generally most people took it in the way it was promoted at the time. It was all good fun.”

While the name may have been quickly swatted away, die-hard badminton fans didn’t need the governing body’s blessing, and carried the tag proudly at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. There was even unofficial apparel, adorned with slogans like “Nobody Likes To Come Second” and “Expect Big Things”.

“The shirts are awesome and it’s great to have so many supporters over here wearing them,” mixed doubles player Runesten told the press at the time. Teammate John Gordon agreed: “Everyone loves it,” he said, suggesting the merch could help raise some much-needed funds for the sport.

Dan Shirley and Sarah Runesten-Petersen won silver in the mixed doubles at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games (Photo: Getty Images)

But it was there, on the international stage, that what should have already been the glaringly obvious issue with the name was brought into focus. 

“We’re playing Jamaica tomorrow so there could be some competition there,” Gordon told reporters at the time. “We played Kenya this morning… we possibly should have looked at the draw before we made the T-shirts.”

Therein lay the big issue with the name: “Black Cocks” was playing on a racial stereotype that even 20 years ago was widely understood to be offensive (see: David Brent’s “royal family” joke in The Office).

This isn’t the only time a New Zealand sporting nickname has raised eyebrows internationally. In 2021, New Zealand Football said they were looking into changing their All Whites tag as part of a bid to become “the most inclusive sport in Aotearoa”. And at last year’s Fiba World Cup, men’s basketball team the Tall Blacks caused a stir among American viewers unfamiliar with the rugby union team the nickname was referencing.

But while it may have raised eyebrows back in 2005, the reaction would likely be different if Badminton NZ were to come out and launch the Black Cocks as their new brand today, current Badminton NZ chief executive Stephen Nelson says.

“I am sure we would invoke all manner of publicity were we to adopt that nickname again,” he tells me. “Whether publicity is the same as popularity is hard to say. We live in a very different age from 20 years ago and language is important.”

His predecessor, Dunne, agrees: “I think these days, yeah, you couldn’t call them anything like that,” he admits. 

Whether you believe the name was an offensive co-opting of a crude racial stereotype by a largely white organisation, or that PC has gone too far and it was just a bit of harmless fun is by-the-by, because one thing is now clear: Badminton NZ wants nothing to do with the Black Cocks nickname.

“No, it’s not the official nickname,” Nelson confirms before doubling down. “Personally, I don’t like the nickname. I feel a national sports team should have a sense of pride in its name and this would be pretty hard to achieve with that nickname.”

While Dunne wouldn’t bring the name back today, he doesn’t regret the attention it briefly brought his sport back in 2005. “What it did was create a lot of interest in badminton,” he says. “I remember saying to a reporter out at North Harbour when we were playing the Aussies, that they wouldn’t be here unless it was for the name. 

“The players liked the publicity because they worked so hard as top athletes for basically no recognition, no attention and no media interest. Then all of a sudden there was an emphasis on badminton and people became more aware of them. So everyone sort of bought into it from the badminton perspective.”

Dunne’s point about the lack of media interest in the sport still rings true two decades later – a quick search shows almost zero mention of international badminton in New Zealand over the past year. I didn’t even realise until the final stages of writing this story that the New Zealand team was actually competing this month, losing 4-1 to Australia in the Oceania Championship final last Sunday.

With Olympic qualifying never assured and the future of the Commonwealth Games looking bleak, it’s difficult to see where the attention for badminton – or other sports of similar stature – is going to come from. It’s little wonder sports turn to gimmicky nicknames in the hopes of stirring just a fraction of the attention the All Blacks brand receives. 

But perhaps that’s where badminton’s next media run can come from: finding a new nickname that finally frees them from their short-lived but long-remembered 2005 moniker. While the current chief executive doubts that a nickname would help bring a higher media profile to badminton in New Zealand, he’s open to suggestions. 

Just don’t mention the Black Cocks.

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