Badminton moves out of the backyard

The World Badminton Championships bring a popular participant sport (really!) to America.

The players look like they belong in a five-ring circus of martial artists, ballet dancers, and airborne contortionists trying to, as the poet said, "slip the surly bonds of earth."

Fleet as waterbugs, agile as mongooses, these racket-wielders prance delicately, spring aggressively, and float silently. Then, accompanying what look like vicious tomahawk chops from high overhead, a brutal lexicon of guttural sounds punctuates the air: "Aiieeee!" "Hayaaaaah!" "Eeeee-haaaaaah!"

And all the while, the shuttlecocks rocket between them.

Through Aug. 21, some of the best athletes from 52 countries are competing in the first World International Badminton Federation Championships to be held in the United States.

As they do, two stories unfold.

One: This is not your father's backyard-barbecue badminton - played with racquet in one hand, lemonade or hotdog in the other. Top Olympic-quality athletes who have trained five to six hours daily, six to seven days a week for decades, are exhibiting peak form and concentration.

For those in the know, it turns out, this is not exactly fresh news. But, officials say, the vast majority of Americans, locked into the cultural-norm sports of baseball, basketball, and football - are not in the know.

Two: The very fact that the US is hosting its first world championship is - as several officials, participants, and audience members repeat ad infinitum - a very big deal. Both for the future of badminton in the US as well as around the world. The sport needs expanding sponsorship, TV ad revenue and first-rate facilities for broadcast.

Promoters call badminton the world's second-largest participant sport (behind soccer). Once big here, it has waned steadily since the end of WWII. "I've been waiting 35 years for this moment," says Mary Anne Bowles, secretary of the USAB, college badminton ace, now-senior champion (and wife to a youth badminton coach).

The sport was invented in 500 BC, became an international sport with nine member countries in 1934 and entered the Olympics in 1992.

The only American to win a world singles championship, some fathers and grandfathers here may recall, was Dave Freeman - the "Pasadena Flash" - who did not lose a singles match from 1938 until retirement in 1953.

As armories and other venues where the sport was played were shifted into military use during the war, the sport was left behind, never to recover. Today the world's best players come from China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea and Denmark. Many of America's best players are émigrés or their offspring.

Here, no US player is seeded higher than 12th, although Tony Gunawan (an Indonesian émigré) was a 2000 Olympics gold medalist and 2001 world champion in doubles. Still, there are large pockets of Badminton activity in some states, notably California, New York, Illinois and Massachusetts.

To watch the speed, agility, endurance, and precision of these players is to wonder why the sport ever diminished into a mere "game" here. Players use an arsenal of shots from "clears" (high and deep) to "drives" (fast and low) to "drops" (finessed slowly over the net) to manipulate opponents, outsmart them, or exhaust them into error.

"There is not a slouch here, this is as good as it gets," says Mike Wolfe, a former competitor visiting from Washington who still plays the senior leagues. The first or second thing out of every enthusiast's mouth here is that this is the "fastest racket game in the world" and that the shuttlecock's speed reaches over 200 m.p.h.

Badminton players cover far more ground per match than their tennis counterparts (from one to two miles), in half the time (about 40 minutes) and must have uncommonly accurate eye-hand coordination, foot speed, and jumping ability. Such factoids reflect the crowds' desire to draw others into their extreme enthusiasm. At a Denmark vs. New Zealand men's doubles match, a group of 30 Danes holding a giant Danish flag screamed and oscillated their hands in unison throughout the game. Often, the players turned around to acknowledge the support.

"There are lots of lingering misconceptions about badminton, that it is a long, slow, boring game," says USAB executive director Dan Cloppas. "But when audiences see it at this level of ability, it transforms that perception immediately." The current matches are beamed live to 130 countries but will only be seen on delayed broadcast here, Sept. 6 and 12, on ESPN.

"Most Americans have no idea how hard real, competitive badminton is," says 16-year-old Lauren Todt. She trains seven days a week for four to five hours a day and just missed qualifying for these championships at recent playoffs in Massachusetts.

"When they see the level of excitement and ability that these players have, I think they will have a whole new way of thinking about the sport," says Lauren.

Coaches and officials here are betting on that. But they say the climb is uphill against perception, tradition, and entrenched ways of thinking.

"We need to get it into the schools so kids have exposure from an early age," says Ms. Bowles.

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