Keep badminton in back yard, and put another burger on grill


BARCELONA, Spain -- Now, wait a minute. I think we've taken this "all sports are equal" thing a little too far here. Badminton? Badminton is an Olympic event? You can win a medal for slapping a birdie over a net? What's next? Olympic hot-dog grilling?

"Badminton's cool," someone says. "Go see it."

Listen, pal. I know badminton. I know the roots of badminton. The roots of badminton are in your basement, in a box that sits untouched until the Fourth of July barbecue, when you take it out because you don't want your kids breaking any bones in a real sport, like football, or VCR adjusting.

Here is how badminton goes:

First, you spend an hour untangling the net.

Then you have a beer.

Then you hold the birdie under the faucet to wash off the mildew.

Then you have another beer.

Then you give the kids two rackets, the birdie and the net -- which you still haven't untangled, so it looks like something a New England fisherman would pull in over the side of the boat -- and you say a few inspirational words, such as, "Here. Try not to kill yourselves."

Then you have another beer.

So I know badminton, OK? But because I am a curious man, I take a trip to the Olympic badminton "venue." And I'm thinking, "Venue? Don't they mean 'back yard'?"

And I walk inside.

And I'm thinking "inside?"

And this is what I see: four large, hard courts, with perfectly straight nets, and these ridiculously healthy looking players, racing around, slapping birdies a la Boris Becker. Some are even wearing kneepads. Where I come from, wearing kneepads to play badminton is like playing checkers in a helmet.

And I don't smell any burgers.

Where the hell is the grill?

"You have come to interview the Malaysians?"

Well, sure, I say. I mean, I'll interview whoever has the barbecue sauce.

The official points to three well-built men, with jet black hair and stringy mustaches. They are in full badminton action, looking very much like tennis players, running and grunting as they smash the birdie at tremendous speeds. Someone should stop them, I figure, before they knock over the cooler.

"They are brothers," the official says. "The Sidek family. Very good players. Medal favorites."

Hmm. They must celebrate the Fourth of July every month in Malaysia.

Their practice ends. I approach the brothers. They are Razif, 30; Jalani, 29; and Rashid, 23. I figure they will be totally thrilled that a journalist has come to talk to them. I introduce myself to Razif. This is the first thing he says:

"Didn't you interview me yesterday?"

Now, I have been pretty patient with the Olympics. I said nothing when they added synchronized swimming, even though you can see the same thing in an Esther Williams movie. And I kept my mouth shut about rhythmic gymnastics, which should be renamed "Olympic Ribbon Waving."

I put up with tae kwon do and field hockey and yachting -- amateurs? yachting? -- and I even looked the other way when somegenius tried to make bowling an Olympic sport ("If he gets this 7-10 split, Chris, he'll have the gold medal ..."). But I will not -- will not! -- tolerate attitude from a badminton player.

"No," I snap. "I was not here yesterday."

Razif shrugs. "I do many interviews."

He must be joking.

He is not joking. In Malaysia, badminton is big, and so are the Sideks. They get stopped for autographs. Women bat their eyes flirtatiously. These guys -- who have been offered $100,000 each by their government if they win a medal -- are the Malaysian Dream Team.

Go figure.

"At first, I like the attention," Rashid says, "but now, it can be troublesome."

Yeah. Everyone wants you to sign a birdie.

By the way, the Malaysians do not use the word birdie, or the British equivalent "shuttlecock" -- which has to be the worst name in sports since "pigskin."

No. This is what the Malaysians call it: "bulutangkis." As in "Boy, I really smashed that bulutangkis!" Or, "OK, everybody, watch the bulutangkis!" I can hear their kids now: "Mommy, the dog ate the bulutangkis!"

(By the way, these birdies -- or bulutangkis -- are not cheap. Nor are the top flight badminton rackets, which can cost $100 -- or $98.01 more than an entire badminton set costs in the United States. And ours comes with a box.)

"You know," I tell Razif, "in my country, badminton is quite different ..."

"Yes, I know," he says. "You play on grass. Ha ha. Is very funny."

He pulls off his kneepad and zips his $100 racket inside its black leather case. I decide not to bring up the cooler thing.

Instead, I ask the Sideks how they got started in the sport. They say their father pushed them. They say they wanted to be football players, but Papa made them go out every day and play badminton instead. I can see this happening in Texas, can't you?

"It was always our father's dream to be a champion in badminton," Rashid says. "Now, he gets his dream with us."

Maybe. What he doesn't get is a burger.

And as far as I'm concerned, it ain't really badminton until he does.

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