260 Million More to go08 August, 2016
YES, badminton really is an Olympic sport. It is a phrase I repeated at least once a day for two years prior to the '96 Games in Atlanta. So, that should give you an idea of the chasm of ignorance the United States Badminton Association faces in its quest to introduce the world's fastest racket sport to Americans.
For two years, I endured jokes from my friends and colleagues about the sport that I had volunteered to cover for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during the Olympics.
They laughed when I began telling them all the fascinating facts that I had learned: like the shuttlecock travels up to 200 mph when hit by players like Ricky Subagja and Rexy Mainaky and that shuttlecocks were made with real goose feathers. It needed me to produce a Yonex feather shuttlecock to show the skeptics the difference between the flimsy plastic birdies they’ve played with in their backyards and a real shuttle. When it came time to make fun of goofy athletics, badminton was always paired with synchronized swimming as the sports least likely to get any respect. But synchro capitalised in the US with its photogenic competitors and especially by winning a gold medal.
You see nothing gets the American spirit soaring like a winner. And that is what US badminton needs more than anything, someone to pin its hopes on and to cheer for. Kevin Han's performance proved that in the Olympics. The crowd went nuts when he won the first game of his match. Imagine if he had progressed through the tournament to get to the final. My guess is that the USBA and the IBF would have had a little more success with NBC in getting some TV airtime if an American had had half a chance to be at someone.
If badminton supporters want to change the sport's image in the USA a backyard diversion to be played while juggling a beer and a hot dog - a complete over haul is required.
The USBA certainly seem to understand that with their hiring of Cliff McPeak as executive director. McPeak took volleyball out of obscurity and stamped its image on to the American psyche. McPeak has some great ideas about how to do the same thing for badminton but unfortunately the quickest way through television exposure costs millions of dollars that the USBA doesn't have. If TV won't cover badminton in the Olympics, then the sport is not likely to get much free broadcast time for smaller events.
Missing the opportunity to showcase the sport to millions of children and their parents means the SBA will have to work that much harder to kick start its real challenge:to get youngsters to play the game at school and in recreational leagues the way they do soccer, baseball, basketball and grid iron.
But there really is no incentive for American parents to get behind badminton the way they do, for say, Little League baseball. There are only a few school based programmes in the country; there are no college scholarships; and no superstar role models.
A huge part of McPeak's success with volleyball hinged on developing winning teams. The USBA has reset its goal of an American medal in the 2004 Olympics. Eight years seems a long way off, but when you look at the time spent in other countries to build a first class programme, it's a blip on the screen.
Yet in America, the land of 30-second commercials, eight years can seem like an eternity. We want instantaneous gratification and our attention spans are about as long as a Nike commercial. So badminton needs to work fast.
I don't want to sound like it's hopeless. There are a few bright spots: the opening of Don Chew's centre in Orange County, California, which held the US Open featuring the game's biggest prize money, the hiring of Steve Butler as national coach at the Olympic training centre in Colorado Springs, where the nation's best players will live and practice for the 2000 Olympics and beyond.
And the game itself has so much going for it: fast, fun and will keep you fit. Over the past two years, I have become a true fan of the game. So that's one down, only 260 million Americans to go.
-- World Badminton Vol 25 No 1 Jan-Feb 1997