Badminton in Indonesia

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

In the city of Solo on the Indonesian island of Java, the town square is a smooth dirt surface illuminated by blue fluorescent lights hanging from electrical cords. Every day, from morning to midnight, townspeople sit on easy chairs and watch players whack a small object made of cork, goat leather, and goose feathers back and forth with flimsy-looking rackets made of wood. The game they play is bulutangkis, and it is a national obsession. Outside of Indonesia the game is known as badminton.

Badminton was invented in the 1860s by the daughters of the Duke of Beaufort, who entertained themselves with a version of the children's game known as battledore and shuttlecock. The game they derived for themselves soon became known for the house in which they played it, the duke's Badminton House in Gloustershire, England.

Before long, badminton societies and clubs were sprouting throughout England. In 1893 the first Badminton Association was formed. Six years later the All-England Badminton Championship was played. Eventually, the sport migrated to continental Europe. From there it reached India via British military officers and Indonesia by way of Dutch colonists. The far-flung expansion necessitated the formation of the International Badminton Federation (IBF) in 1934.

Badminton took root in many countries, including Australia, China, Denmark, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, and the United States. But nowhere did it catch on as it did in Indonesia, which ultimately became a global badminton superpower. In 1992, badminton's inaugural year as an official Olympic sport, Indonesians brought home the country's first gold medals.

Indonesia's tropical climate permits year-round outdoor play. The sport's low equipment cost makes it affordable to almost anyone. Two rackets, a shuttlecock, a long piece of string, and an empty piece of ground are all that is needed. Courts are often placed next to houses or apartment buildings because the structures serve as windbreaks. Fences covered with sheets of canvas also do the trick. In the absence of windbreaks, courts are oriented with prevailing winds blowing parallel to the court, not perpendicular.

Indonesian dominance of the sport began in the 1950s. In 1957 Indonesia competed in its first Thomas Cup, an international tournament named for IBF cofounder Sir George Thomas, a renowned badminton, tennis, and chess champion. Indonesia's stunning victory earned the country immediate entrance into the IBF.

Indonesia went on to win the triennial competition seven times in nine attempts from 1961 to 1984. The country also made its mark in other international tournaments, including the World Championship, the World Grand Prix, and the World Cup. Indonesia's best player during this stretch was also regarded as the best player in the world—Rudy Kurniawan Hartono, winner of a record eight All-England titles from 1968 to 1976. Hartono's victory at the 1980 World Championships before a home-country crowd in Jakarta keyed a dominant performance by the Indonesians, who won four of five events.

Starring on Indonesia's talent-rich delegation to the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain, was Susi Susanti, winner of the World Junior Championships in 1990, 1991, and 1992 (and ultimately 1993 and 1994). Susanti won the women's singles competition, becoming the first Indonesian athlete to earn an Olympic gold medal since the country gained its independence 43 years earlier. “It was something very precious for Indonesia,” she remarked later, according to Sports Illustrated. Meanwhile, the Indonesian men produced a medal sweep in the singles competition, with Allan Kusuma capturing the gold, Ardy Wiranata the silver, and Hermawan Susanto the bronze. Indonesia also earned the silver and bronze in the men's doubles.

The badminton team returned home as heroes. Their achievements had the effect of piling additional pressure onto the squad heading for the 1996 games in Atlanta, Georgia. “Because we won two gold medals in '92, the government wants some more in Atlanta,” Kusuma told Sports Illustrated a few weeks before the Atlanta competition. “Well, it is easy to say but not so easy to do.”

Kusuma and the national team's 80-odd other members lived at a cramped training center on the outskirts of Jakarta where, according to Sports Illustrated, words of inspiration were painted on a wall: “Badminton is my soul. Sportsmanship is my breath. Red and white [the national colors] is the symbol of my fate.” The players were also motivated by material incentives. Their gold-medal efforts earned Kusuma and Susanti each a $200,000 bonus—about 200 times the country's annual per capita income. The stars also reaped handsome incomes by promoting cars, shampoo, and other consumer products.

All the words and money, however, didn't help Indonesia improve on its Olympic medal count in Atlanta. The only gold medal was brought home by the men's doubles duo of Rexy Mainaky and Ricky Subagja, the reigning world champions. The two narrowly defeated a Malaysian pair who ignored a fortune-teller's advice to take green bananas onto the court. After the victory Mainaky sobbed as the Indonesian faithful among the crowd sang and waved flags. “I thank God for giving us the power to win this game,” he told the ESPNET Sportszone Web site afterwards.

Despite their performance at the 1996 Olympics, Indonesians have maintained their first-class rank in the sport. As for badminton in general, the future looks bright. See Also Indonesian Customs

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