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Badminton in Beijing: Unmatched Popularity

July 23, 2008, 1:39 p.m. (ET)

During his recent guest spot on NBC's Late Night with Conan O'Brien show, 2005 World Champion badminton player Howard Bach, 29, showed the host a sample of the speed and power of a badminton shuttlecock by smashing it with his racquet onto the stage. The shuttlecock whizzed past O'Brien giving the audience a taste of the lightning speed in which a badminton player can put away an opponent.

"What I enjoy most about smashing the shuttlecock so hard is I am able to say without saying it, yes, there is more where that came from," Bach said in a later interview. A badminton shuttlecock can travel at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour.

Badminton, or a variation of it, was invented by the Chinese in 500 BC but its influence spread to civilizations like India, Japan, and Greece. In the 16th century, it was the sport of European nobility and by the 19th century it was played in private badminton clubs in France, England, the United States and throughout the world. Its popularity spread in America in part because it was a favorite game of 1930s Hollywood movie stars Bette Davis, James Cagney, Douglas Fairbanks and Ginger Rogers.

Badminton remains one of the top sports in China and much of Asia and is one of the most popular sports in the world today.

In 1992, badminton made its first appearance as an Olympic Games sport at the Barcelona Games. The Beijing Olympic Games mark the first time the United States has qualified in all five badminton disciplines which include men and women's singles, men and women's doubles and mixed doubles.

The Olympic Games badminton matches in Beijing are highly anticipated by the host country and were among the first tickets to sell out.  China holds 22 Olympic medals in badminton while the USA has never medaled at the Olympic Games. 

"I cannot imagine how big it will be.  But, in all my years of playing badminton at major tournaments, I have never played to a sold-out crowd," said Khan "Bob" Malaythong, 28, who will play doubles with Bach.  

The five U.S. Olympians heading to Beijing are all first or second- generation Asian Americans, whose families hail from Vietnam, Laos, Taiwan, the Philippines and Hong Kong. Besides Bach and Malaythong, Eva Lee, 22, Mesinee "May" Mangkalakiri, 26, and Raju Rai, 26, round out the team.

"The talent pool in Asia is amazingly large," Malaythong said. "They go after badminton all or nothing there and for every one player on a team, there are 1,000 players who didn't make it.

"I am not entirely sure that if I lived in Asia today if I would have made it to this level. Badminton is more than just a sport in Asia; it is a chance for a better life."

Malaythong, - who is the first-ever Laotian American Olympian in any sport, immigrated here when he was 8-years old and began playing badminton at age 11. Although he has never returned to Laos, he is well-known as an Olympic badminton player in his native country. Bach, the veteran of one Olympic Games and a World Champion, was born in Vietnam and his father played badminton there.  When Bach and his then doubles partner Tony Gunawan, a professional badminton player from Indonesia, won the World Championship in 2005, they set the stage for America's emergence in the sport. However, Gunawan could not participate in the Olympic Games on the American team because of citizenship issues.

"All five of the athletes have made huge sacrifices to be on this team including careers and financial security. I think these players really have a shot at doing well," said Dan Clopppas, executive director of USA Badminton. "There are only 16 teams and the Olympics are badminton's biggest stage. Anything can happen."

Badminton Shuttlecocks are made of goose feathers placed around a leather-covered cork - a delicate sounding combination that surprisingly reaches 200 miles per hour when smashed with a racquet.  The speed of play not only comes from the swift shuttlecock, but each player uses high lobs or short drops or a  targeted smash - like the one aimed at Conan O'Brien - to win a  point.  The court may appear small, but players need immense stamina while playing, covering up to four- miles in constant movement during one hour of play. Singles play features running and stopping, turning and returning from the backcourt to frontcourt and doubles play is so swift that it requires even better reflexes than singles play.

"There are times playing doubles when the speed of the opponent is almost too much to handle. It is unbelievably fast and the "birdie" comes at us so quickly," Malaythong said. "We simply have to try and handle the speed of the other players. What is amazing is that when you watch badminton on television, it seems to move slowly. It is difficult to appreciate how fast it is until you watch it live."

For all of the five competitors heading to Beijing next month, there is a collective goal to give a sport so loved in their native Asia the chance to grow in recognition and stature in this country.

"What we are preparing for right now is to have confidence in ourselves as we try to stay in the moment. Two years ago I was out with knee surgery and today I am going to be in the Olympics," said Rai, who is a singles player.  "It makes it that much greater for me. I can't wait to be in the opening ceremonies and right after that badminton begins."

 The players also feel that this particular may be a chance to put badminton in the spotlight for younger American players in the hopes that they stick with the sport and help it grow.

"In this country it is difficult to make a living playing badminton and there are not as many young people with talent who will take the game to the next level because they know there is very little recognition or professional opportunities," said Malaythong. "For that reason, we have a strong team but we don't have a lot of depth to our team. In other words, we don't have a second, third and fourth string of players. We really want to see badminton at the same level as other major sports, and we have a lot to prove and show at this Olympics."


Laurie Fullerton is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.