[bad1]On Tuesday of Welcome Week at 3 in the morning I was by myself in my dorm room. All the lights were off, and the shades were drawn. Being a student and having this kind of privacy prompted me to take some liberties. I immediately grabbed the television remote and put on the Olympics. Hoping to watch Shawn Johnson or Nastia Lukien tear up the balance beam, or maybe some Michael Phelps highlights, I got stuck watching two grown men play badminton. Two men whose combined names consist of no more than 10 letters. I didn’t know badminton existed outside of someone’s backyard or that a man’s first and last name could be comprised of only four letters, so I immediately booted up Wikipedia to learn more.
In a game filled with shuttlecocks and little racquets it is of no surprise badminton is the official sport of pornography stars. Take note, I just made that up, but it seems entirely plausible. Badminton actually started in ancient Greece. Over the course of hundreds of years the sport made its way east and grew in popularity in Japan and India, and was eventually introduced to England in the 1800s. Europe’s affluent upper class began setting up badminton clubs until 1934 when the International Badminton Federation (IBF) was established. However, since its inaugural year, IBF has become increasingly dominated by Japan, India, China, Hong Kong and South Korea. The last lowly European competitor is Denmark, but it even struggles to keep up with the Asian powerhouses. [chen]
When I spoke to the president of the Badminton Club at MSU, zoology senior Jennifer Chen said, “Badminton is an Asian sport.” She is entirely right. In China, after a long day of work or studying, people go and play badminton. Why, you ask? Badminton Club faculty advisor Eric Wenzhong Yang said, “Badminton is relaxing.” So while I am looking forward to playing “Call of Duty 4″ or eating some trail mix after a long day of classes, the Chinese are gearing up for badminton.
To most Americans, badminton is a backyard sport for a quiet weekend afternoon near the grill. As the weekend comes to a close, most families pull down the net and store it in their garage until they have another barbecue. All in all, badminton is only played a few times a summer. It was not until watching NBC’s Olympic badminton coverage that late night during Welcome Week that my perception of badminton was turned upside down.
The people playing were actually athletes, not some middle-aged men conned into playing with their kids. They wore real badminton shoes, not sandals, athletic shorts, and not khakis. They used racquets that looked like they were made of composite materials, not wood. And they were running, running fast. Everything I knew about badminton up to this point was wrong. Watching the athletes dart from every corner of the court made me think to myself, “That is not the way I used to play with my grandparents.” There were smashes, underhand serves and shuttlecocks flying in every direction. I was enthralled. As I watched, eyes glued to the screen, I knew badminton was the game for me.
Despite vast differences between the badminton I saw on television and the badminton I played in my backyard, I figured years upon years of practice each summer would finally pay off. I successfully beat my grandfather three games in a row when I was seven. At nine, I massacred my younger sister and three of her friends by myself, even after I gave them a five point lead. And at 12, while playing on an empty stomach, I had a comeback victory over my neighbor. I could only imagine how much I have improved since then.
I actually thought about becoming a badminton shark for a while. I would scour backyards looking for unsuspecting barbecue parties and casually ask if they wanted to play badminton. At first I would play terribly and make my victims think I was awful. Then, when money was at stake or an ear of corn (come on, I’m at a barbecue and it is free food) was on the line I would whip out all the tricks. When I asked Yang about being a badminton shark he laughed and said back in China he was never a badminton shark but did get a few free dinners.
But, before I could begin with my badminton shark venture I figured it would be best to scope out the talent at the MSU Badminton Club’s practice. Armed with a Captain Morgan headband and a pair of 2-year-old running shoes, I had big ideas of what practice would be like. Crowds would form to watch me play. They would talk amongst themselves about how they could not believe I was American. People would cheer me on as I served so gracefully and smashed so violently. Then there was the other side of me that thought I was going to look like Eric Moussambani at the 2000 Olympic Qualifiers. The odds were stacked against me; I had not played in years. Plus, I had to rent a racquet. Everyone knows when you rent a racquet you are not going to be too impressive. [max]
I clutched my rented racquet as I walked into gym #3 at IM West, and looked at my potential competitors. Hack Ly, a freshman international student from Vietnam was a chatterbox, which meant he was probably really good at badminton. He intimidated me. Standing near Ly were German engineering graduate exchange students, Stefan Kamppeter and Lukas Jaeger. They had accents so they must be good, I thought. Sitting in front of them was advertising freshman Amy Provost. She was American, and I immediately confided in her. If we were to prove ourselves, we would need to stick together.
While watching a couple of matches I noticed something unusual. It was quiet. Chen told me ahead of time there are no grunts or moans in badminton like there are in tennis. “You can always tell who the tennis players are,” she said. It was not until I was at practice that I believed her. I mean, this is the fastest racquet sport. Shuttlecocks reach speeds of nearly 200 mph! There is no way people are silent. Once again, I was wrong. Aside from the squeaks of tennis shoes stopping and swerving on the floor and my expletives, it was silent. In between play I found myself scanning the courts to take in this experience. I did not see anyone get overly frustrated, nobody was throwing their racquets in disbelief, and no one grunted as if they were giving birth. Take note, Maria Sharapova.
After playing one game I realized badminton is tough. In fact, it is brutal. I did not know the rules, did not know how to serve, did not know the strategies… I was terrible. Yang explained to me why this was. “Badminton is all about strategy. It is very mental. I’m getting older, but I can still beat younger players because many of them do not have strategy. They can smash very hard and run very fast, but I have the strategy,” he said. Unlike the younger players who had agility and strength, and the older players who had strategy, the only thing I had going for me was my Captain Morgan headband. Not because it worked well at absorbing my sweat, but because it looked cool. I played a few more games and improved slightly. With the help of my teammate, I was able to win one of the three matches I played. So much for being a badminton prodigy.
Unlike winning video games or a round in fantasy football, winning a badminton match felt like much more of an accomplishment. Even though I only played for two hours, I put all of my effort into trying to get better and win a match. When you are good at something and winning becomes natural, it loses value. On the contrary, when you work hard at something, doing all that you can do to succeed, the win becomes much more significant.
I walked to the bench after practice, breathing heavily and sweating like a faucet, and Chen asked me what I thought. All I could say was, “I liked it.” Aside from badminton being a great workout and putting my ego properly in check (being a badminton shark is now out of the question), I met some great people. I never expected going into badminton would lead to new friends. My German-accent friends, Lukas and Stefan, told me stories about growing up, what high school was like and how their college lectures have over 1,000 students. And, of course, we talked about German beer, Jagermeister and the autobahn. Amy told me about her days playing badminton back in middle school and how, because she enjoyed it so much, she thought she would give it a try at MSU. Even my Vietnamese buddy Hack Ly who ran off early to go to another club meeting told me living in East Complex is not as bad as everyone in South Complex makes it out to be.
What started off as a profile about the Badminton Club and a goal to include as many shuttlecock references possible has turned into a newfound appreciation for a sport hardly recognized by much of the world. A sport that is just as much physically draining as it is mentally draining – badminton is no cakewalk. For those who still think badminton is nothing more than a mere backyard sport, the only thing Chen has to say to you is, “Just play. You’ll see.”