Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games08 April, 2016
Badminton’s second excursion in its great Olympic journey achieved the kind of success that it was now expecting – and some it had not. Drawing on its social roots, it increased the involvement of women, thereby gaining support in an area of the world where it had been underestimated. Badminton also became an attraction for celebrities.
Alongside this progress, Poul-Erik Høyer produced a rare and stunning European success despite the dominating excellence of the four leading Asian nations. Neither singles title was won by a favourite; throughout these Games the emotional ambience was so powerful that top seeds wobbled and fell.
Olympic badminton was rewarded by an increase from four to five events in Atlanta, thanks in part to the spectacularly successful start in Barcelona four years previously. It meant a debut for mixed doubles, which proved a pleasing attraction and of the very few Olympic sports where men and women compete together for medals.
This new inclusion took badminton back to its social roots and forward to an era of greater gender equality. It also helped gain it more attention of the host nation, the United States.
Both yachting and equestrianism can have mixed pairs or teams, but mixed doubles made badminton then the only Olympic sport in which men and women competed both with and against each other.
This re-emphasised badminton’s appeal to women, which sat well with the emotions of the centennial Olympics. Atlanta was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Games’ revival, and the presence of a recent addition like badminton helped people view them in a modernising light.
Once upon a time badminton had beenregarded as a kind of beach sport in the USA. Now these attitudes had less currency, especially after the Georgia State University venue became a sell-out.
This indicated badminton’s new popularity. But almost immediately it became a must-see sport. This spectacular change of image was brought about by visits from celebrities – former-President Jimmy Carter and his wife,actor Paul Newman, President Clinton’s daughter Chelsea and the UK’s Princess Anne among them. Badminton was a sport for important people. It had become ‘cool’.
This perception was emphasised by David Broder, a Washington Post columnist, who wrote about seeing “one of the supreme athletic spectacles of my life” during the men’s doubles final in which Ricky Subagja and Rexy Mainaky of Indonesia beat Cheah Soon Kit and Yap Kim Hock of Malaysia. It helped people to see that badminton’s boast about being the fastest racket sport of all was undoubtedly valid.
Asian players delivered spectacularly well. But Atlanta produced the first European gold medallist - Poul-Erik Høyer, later President of the BWF and an IOC member.
The Dane was nearly 31, and although he had twice won the All-England title and had elevated himself to second seed, he surprised many people with the three tremendous straight games victories which made him an Olympic pioneer.
Høyer beat Kusuma, the Olympic champion from Indonesia, then overcame another Indonesian, Heryanto Arbi, the world champion, before brilliantly outmanoeuvring Dong Jiong, the top Chinese player, in the final.
These wins were temperamental and tactical masterpieces. Høyer seemed to think the last one was pretty sensational too, for at its conclusion he slid along the floor on his knees, ripped his shirt to shreds, and bared his chest to the crowd.
His 15-12, 15-10 triumph was achieved against a Dong Jiong who had a great speed and a dangerous jump smash, but also a debilitating tension which never left him entirely. Hoyer used his height and tactical brain to get the shuttle down in the forecourt, where his excellent net skills often limited Dong’s attacking opportunities.
“I am a better player now that I know badminton is not the most important thing in my life,” said Hoyer. “My wife and son are – so I feel more relaxed.”
Earlier Rashid Sidek became the third Malaysian brother to win an Olympic medal, scoring a stunning quarter-final success over a nervous-looking Joko Suprianto, the top-seeded Indonesian, and then winning a bronze medal play-off success against Arbi. There had been bronze medals for brothers Razif Sidek and Jalani Sidek in Barcelona.
The most successful nation however was Korea. Two gold medals and two silvers were testimony to the exceptional physical fitness their players achieved in a very disciplined regime.
Koreans twice made headlines in the women’s singles – Kim Ji-Hyun beating the top seed and Bang Soo-Hyun winning the gold medal.
Bang, whose father was a comedian, often had a ready smile, and two of her widest appeared after a revenge for her Barcelona final loss against Susi Susant and an 11-6, 11-7 win against another Indonesian, Mia Audina, the super-flexible 16-year-old. These were self-assured performances by Bang who knew not only what she was doing but where she was going. She retired immediately, aged only 23.
Earlier Kim Ji-Hyun had transformed the mood by beating Ye Zhaoying, the top-seeded world champion 11-5, 12-11 – another success achieved in part by handling pressure better. Each day the feeling grew that the intense Olympic atmosphere might cut down existing heroes and create new ones.
It may have contributed to the Chinese losing three of the women’s singles quarter-finals. They finished with only one gold, through the outstanding women’s doubles pair of Ge Fei and Gu Jun. However China did equal the four medals achieved by their closest rivals, Korea and Indonesia, which became a platform for greater things in future Games.
The happy decision to include mixed doublesin the programme tempted Park Joo-Bong, one of the all-time greats, to make a second comeback. A men’s doubles gold medallist in 1992, Park found another avenue down which to chase a dream – but he and his partner Ra Kyung-Min were beaten in the mixed doubles final by their compatriots Kim Dong Moon and Gil Young-Ah.
Gil had hoped to become the first badminton player to win two Olympic gold medals, but was prevented by the triumph of Ge and Gu in the women’s doubles. However this silver medal, which Gil won with Jang Hye-Ock, and her gold medal with Kim in the mixed doubles did make her the first player to win two medals in the same Games.
-- By Richard Eaton