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Indonesia, a badminton powerhouse, looks to snatch back its glory in Beijing

Beyond shuttlecocks and makeshift courts, an archipelago nation’s craze – and glory – raises hopes, pressure, and the intensity of neighborhood games.

By Oakley BrooksCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 15, 2008

‘Badminton Fever’: Two brothers, M. Irfan (left) and M. Farhan Khoir, play badminton outside the Jaya Raya club.

Oakley Brooks

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Jakarta, Indonesia

It’s badminton season in Indonesia. In my northern Sumatra neighborhood, centered around a stuccoed mosque, the teenagers have abandoned the ping-pong table they’d gathered around most afternoons and strung up a net across a narrow lane between two houses’ corrugated plastic roofs.

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The games have been ferocious, with residents emerging from their small concrete homes around the court to watch. At one game, a stoic-looking grandmother in her pajamas pulls up a chair. Moms settle in with babies in slings. Packs of grade-schoolers peer through a low wrought-iron fence. Motorbikes and cars ease into the surrounding yards, spilling out new fans.

Me, I keep hitting the ratty shuttlecock onto the roof. I tell the other players, “This racket you gave me is missing a few strings.”

Still, I have shoes on and they don’t. I get relegated to the front, by the net, to mop up the other team’s drop shots and mis-hits. But thanks to my partner’s overhead smash – the shot we picnic badmintoners in the West have yet to learn – we prevail over some other neighborhood ruffians. Twice.

“Why are we playing badminton?” I ask.

“Thomas Cup,” my partner says.

The world team championships have just finished in Jakarta, with Indonesia bowing out in the semifinals of the men’s competition and the finals of the women’s. The Chinese have taken home both golds. Everyone here picks up a shuttlecock after the worlds: It’s like Americans swarming the driving range after the Masters.

Next month, Indonesia will send 11 shuttlers – half of its Olympic delegation to Beijing – to snatch back some glory. Badminton, after all, is Indonesia’s sport. No country is more decorated from world competitions since World War II (after which Indonesia sent the Dutch colonists packing, but kept the European import of badminton). And despite being 230 million strong, Indonesia is feeble in almost every other sport.

The game is cheap, playable anytime, anywhere, at any speed, by anyone. Net and shoes are optional. And that’s helped bulutangkis, as Indonesians call badminton, to seep into the dense, warrenlike neighborhoods that nearly everyone in the archipelago calls home.

So Indonesia awaits the Beijing Olympics, with bated breath and lightweight racket in hand. “This sport still belongs to the people, not just the top athletes,” says Tono Sasongko, a senior coach at Jaya Raya, a top badminton club in Jakarta that has produced a slew of Olympians and world champions.
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Inside Jaya Raya’s sweltering gymnasium on a recent afternoon, some of Mr. Tono’s best young boys chase birdies across the rubber floor. Part of a network of more than 30 clubs nationwide that feed talent to the national team, Jaya Raya youngsters work out for seven hours daily, up to six days a week.

And they start young. Ten-year-old Lilyana plops down in a chair next to Tono. She started working out here using a sawed-off racket at age 5. Earlier this year, she won the singles and doubles competitions for her age group at the international Singapore Open.

“My dream is the Olympics,” she says. A picture of her idol, Mia Aulina, a Jaya Raya alum and Olympic silver medalist, hangs behind her on a wall of fame that stretches back to Indonesia’s greatest legend, Rudy Hartono.

The place drips with history – and sweat. The lack of air conditioning has made Indonesian athletes tougher, says Tono, and has wilted the great European players who come to challenge Jaya Raya’s best. While I mop my brow, youngsters walk by and clasp Tono’s hand to their foreheads.

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