Asian Americans Cause a Racquet in Badminton

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Keep your eye on Asian and Asian American players dominating the sport today

BURLINGAME, Calif. — “Hakuna matata!” Raju Rai yelled from the sidelines of the first annual Bay Badminton Championships on May 25. Rai had already won the $3,750 first place prize for men’s singles earlier in the tournament and, now relaxed, he playfully tried to dissipate the thick tension as 2000 Olympic gold medalist Tony Gunawan and 2001 International champion Halim Haryanto competed against Olympic hopefuls Bob Malaythong and Howard Bach, who have been ranked the number one men’s pair in the U.S. for three years.

For a sport that originated in England 150 years ago, Asians and Asian Americans dominate badminton today, from local to international levels. Of the five countries who have won the most Olympic medals in the sport, four are in Asia: China (22 medals), South Korea (14), Indonesia (15) and Malaysia (3).

A look at the top-ranked badminton players listed on the USA Badminton Web site reveals that at least half of the top 56 men’s singles and at least 25 out of the top 33 women’s singles are Asian American. Across all of the United States’ singles and doubles divisions, approximately seven or eight out of the top 10 players are Asian American.

According to a 2006 article by Grant M. Hill and Brian Cleven that analyzed the physical education activity preferences of ninth grade students in a Southern California school district, 52.9 percent of Asians selected badminton. Victor Lo, co-owner of the new Bay Badminton Center in Burlingame, said that 95 percent of the 200 competitors in a tournament last month were Asian American.

Dick Ng, a number-one ranked player in Northern California in the early 1970s, said the sport is Asian-dominated because they are ideal for it. “If you’re 250 pounds and 10 years old, you’re not going to be good at badminton — maybe football,” said Ng, a former coach at Stanford University. “Asians excel because we’re compact and have quick reflexes and blazing speed.”

The Olympic Team
The United States has never won an Olympic medal since badminton was made a medal sport in 1992, but the five players on the U.S. national team aiming to break that losing streak at the Beijing Olympics are all of Asian heritage. Rai, who will compete in men’s singles, is an Atlanta native who picked up the sport from his father, who played in India. Mesinee Mangkalakiri (women’s doubles) is an American-born player of Thai descent. Bob Malaythong (men’s doubles) emigrated from Laos when he was 8, and his partner Bach (who will also compete in mixed doubles) is a Vietnamese immigrant of Chinese descent who grew up in San Francisco. Eva Lee, the first to qualify for three Olympic badminton events (singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles), was born in Hong Kong.

Rai, 25, said he has wanted to be an Olympian since watching the sport at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. When he found out he had a spot on the national team, he said, “I was so excited I couldn’t sleep for a couple of days. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.” Since he was 5, he has participated in badminton and made it his life

Rai trains up to six days each week in three-hour sessions twice a day. Training involves sprints, practicing attack/defense, running on the track, weight training, plyometric exercises to produce fast and powerful movements, and seeing a sports psychologist. Rai said many overlook the psychological aspect of the game.

“They think, okay, just train physically and train your badminton skills, but your mental game is actually a big part of your success,” he said.

Twenty-one-year-old Lee hopes to become the first American woman to receive a medal in any division. China has won about half of all medals in women’s singles, and women’s doubles has been completely dominated by China and Korea.

Part of the reason Asia is so dominant in the sport may be because of its immense popularity in the region.

“Badminton in Asia is somewhat like basketball here in the U.S.,” Rai said. “They have so many players that play at a very high level. Kids see that and they really get into the sport. And that’s something that we’re lacking here.”

Lee said that Europeans play more with power, while Asians are better at technique. But Rai disagreed, saying that Asians are fast and powerful, while Europeans tend to be more strategic, playing at a slower pace but seeking to control the game. Ng believes the sport will be more popular in the U.S. within the next decade, with more scholarships available.

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