At some point, most of us have played badminton in some form, likely as children, batting the shuttlecock over the net, into the net, or into a tree. That stately version, like most games that are pastimes rather than sports, bears little resemblance to the speedy free-for-all that is Olympic badminton.
As the second choice in my A to Z challenge, my 26 days of blogging about the Olympics, I openly warn you, gentle reader, that I prefer to look towards the “little sports.” Too much of American Olympic conversation centers on the big six–basketball, swimming, gymnastics, diving, sprints, and beach volleyball. While I won’t ignore those topics entirely, you should not expect to see a post about the Dream Team or the Perfect Ten.
Instead let us turn our attention to things we know less about–canoeing perhaps, keirin, field hockey, epee… oh, here we go… BADMINTON.
The English Sport that Probably Came from Asia
If your history of badminton only has one sentence, it probably says: Badminton was invented in 1873 when the duke of Beaufort introduced the game at his country estate in Badminton. Credit is always given to the wealthy and prominent. I’ve always found it hard to believe that the 4th Earl of Sandwich was really the first person who thought to put meat between pieces of bread. That was fiction.
Badminton histories of more than a paragraph point out that the game of battledore (bat or paddle) and shuttlecock is probably more than 2000 years old. Whether it originated in China, India, Egypt, or Greece, many cultures were known to play a variation of whacking something that looked like a bird up in the air. Badminton as its played today is closely related to a variation that British Officers occupying India used a pastime, calling it poona after Pune where they were stationed.
The racket has a longer arm than a tennis racket and the shuttlecock is formed from a bit of cork with feathers. As described by my Olympic “bible”:
Players use a racket to hit a leather-covered cork-tipped shuttle that is topped by 16 goose feathers taken from the same goose, usually from the left wing, which is considered stronger.David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky, The Complete Book of the Olympics
You read that correctly. The feathers on a professional shuttlecock are all from the same wing, carefully overlapped to allow for maximum spin. That shuttle can travel up to 200 miles an hour, outstripping the speeds of other racket sports. One other source suggests it’s not that the left wing is stronger, but that the overlapping from the left allows the shuttle to spin clockwise, which is what players are used to. If you used right wing feathers, the shuttle would spin in the opposite direction to what a player had practiced. If there were a mix of left and right feathers? Up in the tree.
Sport Meets Discrimination in Indonesia
One of the things I love most about the Olympics is the opportunity to see so many different sports played by so many different cultures. Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, has won few Olympic medals except in one sport. It turns out that Indonesians are wildly talented at badminton.
The history of badminton in Indonesia likely owes a great deal both to European colonizers–the British and Dutch–and Chinese immigrants. While badminton was played along with football (soccer), archery, martial arts, and other sports, at least one historian has suggested that Indonesia badminton was the one sport available to everyone, including the large ethnic Chinese population. Football was raised up to be a source of national pride by the burgeoning independent governments in the 1950s forward, who also began treating the ethnic Chinese as second-class citizens. Ethnic Chinese players, for example, were underrepresented on the national football team. Discrimination under the Suharto regime became so bad that ethnic Chinese players were prevented from getting passports and had to change their names to be more Indonesian-sounding. Susi Susanti, meet Naim Süleymanoğlu (famous ethnic Turk weighlifter forced to change his name in Bulgaria.)
We’ve seen this story play out before. Minority groups are banned from some sports and pushed towards others. Afterwards, arguments are created that they’re just more talented or genetically gifted, when it’s really a function of driving desire and competitive edge from those limitations. If it’s the only sport you’re allowed to play, you’re going to get damned good at it, in order to have any opportunity at all.
In Barcelona 1992, the first year that badminton was contested, Indonesia’s Susi Susanti won the first gold medal for her countrywomen. Her boyfriend and future husband, Allan Budi Kusumi, won the first Indonesian gold medal on the men’s side. During their victory parade, an estimated half a million people lined the streets to see the couple. Susanti eventually married Budi Kusumi and retired; an Indonesian biopic of her story, Love All, came out in theaters last fall. (I wonder if a subtitled version is available on Netflix…)
London, 2012, an Ignominious Spectacle
But if 1992 was the pinnacle for badminton in Indonesia, July 31, 2012 was surely the nadir for the sport. As with many competitions, the Olympics constantly tinker with format. This variation of the tournament included a round robin followed by the “knockout” matches, variations of the round of eight, but which pitted teams against each other in combinations that might knock out a country. It happens in all sports with round robin formats, but in this case, four women’s teams tried to throw their matches in order to improve their chances.
It may be helpful to know that Chinese women’s teams had dominated the doubles matches in the first five Olympics after Barcelona, taking 11 of the 15 medals, including a complete sweep in Sydney 2000. Their teams were powerful, fierce competitors who worked as a group, as many other nations do (see Kenyan distance runners). When the Chinese team of Tian Qing/Zhao Yunlei lost to the lesser-known Danish team of Pedersen/Juhl, a second Chinese team appeared to try to lose their match to South Korea in order to avoid meeting their countrywomen in the next elimination round.
The crowd booed as the Chinese team started hitting serves into the net or easy shots out of bounds. The South Koreans, who also didn’t want to meet the other powerful Chinese team in the next round, likewise started dropping shots and missing points. Eventually, the South Koreans won. In a match later the same day, a second South Korean team playing an Indonesian team imitated their teammates from earlier in the day, and the Indonesians followed suit, until the judges stopped play to issue warnings. As protests were lodged, the rules committee ultimately disqualified all four teams the next day. Ironically, the gold medal ended up going to Tian/Zhao; the Danish team missed out on a medal, although they did manage to take a silver in 2016.
In Rio 2016, the rules were changed to avoid such match-fixing shenanigans. Rio also instituted a quota system to limit the number of top players and teams by country. China went from winning 8 out of 15 medals in London and Beijing to just 3 in Rio, with Indonesia again taking a gold in Mixed Doubles. Japanese women took the gold in Doubles. Surely, they were thinking about Tokyo 2020. They weren’t the only ones.
Momota Must Look Forward to Tokyo for Another Year
Kento Momota probably thought he had timed it perfectly. The Japanese Men’s Singles superstar had achieved the #1 Badminton World Federation ranking by December 2019, some 20% ahead of the Taiwanese and Danish players in the next three places. (Note to self: Denmark again? Why did Denmark suddenly get good at badminton?) Momota at age 23 seemed to have set himself up to burst on to the Olympic scene in his home country after capping an outstanding year at play, the right time, the right age, the right peak.
This is how athletes do it, starting as teenagers. They know that, at age 17 or 19, they may be too young to excel in their first Games. Age thirty could be past prime. An athlete in a demanding physical sport like badminton probably needs to time their peak over the best dozen years of their playing life. However, qualifying competitions in Asia in January were cancelled due to the C word. Ten years of planning flies out the window. Momota will have to wait another year.
In another strange twist of fate, in February Momota was in a car accident in Kuala Lumpur (Indonesia, of course) which ended up requiring eye surgery. Is it good timing for him that the Olympics were delayed, given that he will lose three months of playing time? It turns out everyone will lose months of playing time. Strange how things work out. All things considered, he probably would have wished for neither cancellation nor car crash. One way or the other, he will be a name to watch in July 2021.
The current world champs in Men’s Doubles are two Indonesian teams. At this point, I can hardly wait to see that potential final.