Big-League Badminton in Barcelona

Forget the garden-party image: `Birds' may fly at 200 m.p.h.

WHEN one exits the Metro at the Poblenou stop in Barcelona looking for Olympic badminton, there is but one sign - pointing the wrong way.

Getting there is a trick, but those who arrive may be richly rewarded by a sport that can amaze with its fast, athletic action - for a bargain-basement price of 1,000 pesetas (about $10).

At the conclusion of one morning session, the British team of Gillian Clark and Julie Bradbury won a tense battle against an Indonesian pair. The game climaxed in a match-point rally of 50 shots or more - smashes, incredible returns, attacks, and counterattacks.

"I can't even remember the last shot of the match, I was so focused," said Ms. Clark, who belongs to the Wimbledon Squash and Badminton Club, Britain's largest. (It sits a mile or so away from the hallowed tennis ground, which is no relation.) Four million Britons play the sport, she says, "more than squash and tennis put together." But badminton suffers from what she calls a "church-hall image" that prevents people from discovering how "spectacular and fun" international-caliber badminton is to watch.

In the United States, the image problem may be even more pronounced, but Cynthia Kelly, president of the US Badminton Association, says the sport is ex- periencing "a real growth curve" now that it's an official medal sport. The US Olympic Committee is funding a development program, including a toll-free hotline (800-621-BIRD) for serious inquiries.

The association has distributed a summary sheet stating why they think badminton is a sleeping giant, a potential boom sport in the US. Among the factors cited:

* The potential for turning on casual "backyard and picnic" players to a more dynamic and challenging level of competition, just as volleyball has done using the Olympic showcase.

* The economy of size - four badminton courts will fit in the space of one tennis court.

* The emphasis on speed and stamina over strength and size. (In street clothes, few top players could be identified as world-class athletes, yet the men can smash the cork-and-goose-feather "bird" at speeds of up to 200 m.p.h.).

* The fitness required. A comparison of men's singles finals at Wimbledon in 1985 and the world badminton championships found that there were 5.1 shots per minute at Wimbledon (including service changeovers), compared with 25.9 in the badminton match. (Shot for shot, of course, more effort is required in tennis).

Where badminton thrives is in Southeast Asia. A good indication of that occurred at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, when badminton was the first sport to sell out, even though it was just an exhibition.

`IF [Asian] kids are playing in the yard, they'll be hitting badminton birds just the way they'll be throwing a baseball in the United States," says Ms. Kelly.

At the Thomas Cup, badminton's equivalent of tennis's Davis Cup, Gillian Clark says 14,000 screaming fans jammed the stadium in Kuala Lumpur, Maylaysia, earlier this year. "I'd walk down the streets and people would know my name, and yet there are people in my own club who don't recognize me," she says.

Among the sport's biggest current stars are the Sidek brothers - Razif, Rashid, Jalani, and Abdul Rahman - who make up half of Malaysia's Olympic badminton team and could bring the country its first medal.

The sport, which is thought to have its roots in ancient China, more recently is traced to India and a game called poona, which became popular with British military officers stationed there in the 18th century.

Back in Britain, it assumed its current name after becoming a popular pastime on the Badminton estate of the Duke of Beaufort.

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