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U.S pair raises a racket

The Baltimore Sun

BEIJING - From Laos to Maryland. From his birth name, Khankham, to his legally changed name, Bob. From training in California to competing in the Beijing Olympics.

And now back home.

The journey for Bob Malaythong has had many unexpected turns, not the least of which involves his spot on the U.S. doubles badminton team. What probably wasn't surprising, though, was how good today's foe, host country China, proved to be.

"They just didn't make any mistakes," Malaythong said. "Everybody makes mistakes, and it just took them awhile to make mistakes. It was, you know, 'What the hell is going on?' "

In the quarterfinals of the Olympics - the furthest an American team has ever reached - Malaythong and his partner, Howard Bach, were overmatched from the start, dropping the first eight points of the opening set and eventually losing, 21-9, 21-10.

In many ways, what Malaythong and Bach saw yesterday was a vision of how they'd like to see the sport grow in America. Beijing University of Technology Gymnasium provided quite a scene. In China, badminton is one of the most popular sports, sufficiently evidenced by the excited crowd that watched the home team dismantle the Americans.

They slapped thunder sticks and chanted endlessly. When a small pocket of Americans waved a flag in a hidden corner of the gym, the entire crowd seemed to take notice, sending boos up to the rafters.

"At least they didn't know how to speak English, just Chinese," Bach said, "so they couldn't bad-mouth us."

Between games, cheerleaders in yellow outfits and pink sneakers performed a routine that involved plenty of hopping and waving of badminton rackets.

The American team is not without its own personality. Malaythong's older sister came to the United States from communist Laos nearly 30 years ago. He followed when he was 9 years old, and his parents still live in Silver Spring. After growing up in Rockville, Malaythong has been living and training in Southern California and plans to move to Boston, where he'll coach a youth program.

Bach, once named one of People magazine's 50 hottest bachelors, exudes color. At one point in the match, Bach slapped a shot into the net. Rather than get upset, he grabbed the nearby television camera and planted a kiss on the lens.

The two have actually brought plenty of the attention to the sport back home, even if it has ruffled some feathers in the badminton community. Malaythong and Bach appeared last year in a television commercial for Vitaminwater, in which they portrayed a Chinese doubles team playing badminton against Brian Urlacher and David Ortiz. At commercial's end, Urlacher lodged a shuttlecock in Malaythong's leg.

The TV spot bore at least a slight resemblance to the quarterfinal loss against the Chinese, which highlighted how far the Americans have come but also revealed how far they've still to go.

While Malaythong was making his Olympic debut, Bach competed in 2004, too, and has high hopes for the sport back home.

"If you have someone like Tiger Woods or Roger Federer, who can consistently win, then badminton would at least have some sort of headlines," he said. "And they'd show it on SportsCenter highlights or something like that."

For a day at least, badminton did generate some buzz. Nearly a dozen U.S. reporters crowded around the pair after the loss, which hadn't happened much before.

"This is the first," Malaythong said, "and probably the last time."

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