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.
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.
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.
“All the parents here, they want international accomplishment for their kids,” Tono says. And, in fact, families ring the court, looking on expectantly as children dart across the floor. “That’s actually what we look at when kids come here: What’s the spirit of the parents like? Talent can be trained.”
Everyone seems to have a theory about why the national team has been down in recent years, failing to win a single team championship since 2002. Lack of spirit is near the top of that list. The players lost focus, people say. Maybe the country put too much pressure on its athletes. Or the crowds have been too lackluster.
Says one recreational player in Jakarta, “I think God has given the Chinese some more privilege.”
Out at the national team’s training center, tucked away in a Jakarta suburb, head coach Christian Hadinata looks on as his athletes swat shuttlecocks and he remembers the days of “Badminton Fever,” which reached its height in the late 1960s and ’70s. Indonesia was a young, restless nation, and in 1967, badminton fans rallied so intensely around the national team and its emerging star, Mr. Rudy, that international officials penalized Indonesia for interfering with play – and eventually handed the Thomas Cup to Malaysia.
Mr. Christian grew up listening to Thomas Cup broadcasts on his family radio in Perkerwerto in Central Java, where kids would fashion rackets out of solid wood, and birdies from chicken feathers.
“I still remember the sound of the birdie on the wood – tahook!” Christian recalls. Just before the match began, beloved radio announcer Om (“Uncle”) Sambas would ask “for the support and prayers of the people of Indonesia.”
A decade later Christian had that mantra ringing in his ears before his first serve for the national team at the Thomas Cup. He, Rudy, and Indonesia won all five of the team championships in the 1970s.
“It was amazing all the support we generated with just this little racket,” Christian says. “We weren’t playing for any prize money. Just prestige. I still get recognized out on the street.”
He still wears the helmet of thick hair he had as a young player, and he’s fit enough to keep up with the junior national team players in games every morning at the training center.
But even Christian realizes history can weigh heavily on his players. “It’s considered unusual now if we lose at big competitions,” he says.
Down on the court below him at the national-team center, the athletes swat birdies under several banners from the top national cigarette brand that proclaim, “This is Indonesia, Mister. We have to be champions.”
“I’m trying to just block out the distractions and concentrate on playing my best,” says Liliyana Natsir, who is ranked No. 1 in the world in mixed doubles with partner Nova Widianto. And distractions abound: Ms. Liliyana says the badminton association has made a habit of setting expectations for how far she’ll go in international tournaments – a practice that can turn against her. “Sometimes it acts like a boomerang,” she says.
There is at least one thing that bodes well for Indonesia’s Olympic performance: the men’s singles and doubles finals fall on the weekend of Indonesian Independence Day, Aug. 17.
“We feel the pressure, but we will also feel the spirit of Indonesians out there,” says Markis Kido, part of Indonesia’s top men’s doubles duo.
Out on the court, laughter still rings out, as the men’s doubles players practice flicking back birdies that coaches have dropped impossibly close to the net. They’re the same cackles I heard a few nights earlier from a men’s recreational group in a mosquito-infested gym across town. And then there were the two young brothers and Jaya Raya trainees, ages 7 and 12, who laughed as they leapt around the lawn outside the club, keeping their birdie alive.
It started as a simple game in the street. And in some ways, it always will be: The stakes have gotten higher, but the pure thrill of a neighborhood game is never far away.