Badminton Is Not for Sissies 

And with the opening of nine badminton-only gyms in the Bay Area since 2005, the sport's passionate fans dream of respect and Olympic medals.

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Badminton didn't always have such a bad rep in the United States. The first club opened in New York in 1878. According to Diane Hales, a former national champion who studied the history of badminton in America, it was promoted during vaudeville acts and by 1930s became quite popular. Colleges, YMCAs, and hundreds of newly formed clubs offered badminton lessons, and major celebrities like Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, and James Cagney were spotted carrying badminton rackets.

But the game began to struggle after World War II as clubs closed down. Just as football overshadowed soccer in the United States, Americans and the rest of the Western world gradually turned to badminton's outdoor cousin, tennis. American badminton seemed to be going the way of the Dodo.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the craze was just beginning. Over the last half century, badminton has become the most popular sport in a number of Asian countries, including China, India, Indonesia, and Korea. It's also a major sport in Denmark. And as players from these countries moved to the Bay Area and Southern California, the United States began acquiring a critical mass of players good enough to dream of winning medals for their new nation.

"I've played badminton in Indonesia since I was five," said Olympic gold medalist Tony Gunawan, who is now competing for the United States. "And to come here and see that it's a backyard sport, where someone can play badminton while holding a beer in the other hand, it's just not right."

But even with the help of such players, no American has been able to claim a medal since badminton became an Olympic sport in 1992. The sport received some national attention last year in anticipation of the Beijing Olympics as Howard Bach, a Vietnamese American who grew up in San Francisco and became the world champion in 2005 by playing doubles with Gunawan, hoped to finally grab a medal. However, the attention died back down when he and his partner Bob Malaythong lost to the Chinese in the quarterfinals. Their bittersweet loss was America's highest achievement in the sport.

Now, the badminton community is looking forward to 2012. If Gunawan, who won gold for Indonesia in 2000, receives a green card in time for the next Olympics, he plans to pair with Bach for a better chance of winning a medal. According to many leaders of American badminton, medals and top players are crucial to bringing notoriety to the sport.

"The reason we don't appear in commercials is because we don't have sponsors and we don't have sponsors because we don't have the players — it's like a domino effect," Bach said. "To jumpstart it again, we have to have badminton programs in elementary schools. You can't continue to import players."

For now, Bay Area badminton clubs that offer training to both young and old take the place of elementary schools. There are clubs in all corners of the Bay except in San Francisco, where the price of warehouse space is still considered to be restrictively high.

"It's phenomenal to have that many clubs open for competitive training for younger kids, because when I was growing up here I had to train at the YMCA and compete with basketball players for court time," remembered Bach, 29. "If I had this opportunity, I wouldn't need to leave my home at the age of sixteen to train in the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. Now you have the luxury of training at home. It's great for the world of badminton in general. Now we have to spread like a disease."

Such grassroots enthusiasm for the development of the sport is what's unique about the badminton community. The efforts of club owners, trainers, and players are all underlined with a desire to spread the word about their favorite sport. Evangelizing seems to go hand in hand with playing badminton.

"Part of why I love coaching is because I help introduce people to the sport," said Shear, who both coaches and competes. "I love promoting the sport — just giving back to the sport that gave me so much."

Jim Todt, who cofounded SmashCity, a badminton club in Milpitas, said his main reason for opening it was to provide a convenient place to play for his family, friends and neighbors.

"Badminton isn't a sport you get rich on," he said while watching his twenty-year-old daughter Lauren compete in the recent National Team Trials.

For Yang, however, the club is not just a hobby, but a viable business. With two locations to run, he employs ten coaches and ten managers who hold classes, sell memberships, buy equipment, and run the supply stores. Featuring Olympic-size 35-foot ceilings, synthetic floors, and even a lounge and a cafe upstairs, the first gym brought in enough profit to finance the second location. The combined gyms now attract close to 10,000 visits a month, Yang said, and the demand is growing constantly.

But even with this increase in popularity, badminton still feels like a community sport. Although several hundred people came to the three-day National Team Trials earlier this month, everyone seemed to know each other. Unlike in glitzier American sports, even the top players — Bach and Gunawan — were treated with no particular fuss. There were also many families — parents, couples, and siblings who came to compete, watch, and even judge the competition. Shear's mother, Beth Sopka, for example, didn't fly all the way from Massachusetts only to watch her son play. She also was there as an umpire.

"When Ted got into competing, it was boring going around all the tournaments, so I took up umpiring because it gave me something to do," she said. "It was a great way to spend more time with him. Badminton is a fabulous sport that families can do together. It equalizes people in a lot of ways because it has so many different ways of winning. It allows you to play when you are young or old."

With so many laudable qualities, badminton enthusiasts are convinced that the public will be converted — given enough time.

"I hope that, eventually, more Americans become aware what a great sport it is," said former champion Hales, who has spent decades studying and teaching badminton. "I think it'll be a long slow growth, I don't think anything magical will happen overnight. We don't have those promoters that we had in the '30s. We don't have vaudeville. There are so many sports now."

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