Jay is a small-time badminton smuggler. It's not a serious means of income by any stretch of the imagination, and when I ask about it, he demurs: "Oh, if somebody needs something, I'll get it for them." But serious players around town say that if you're looking for good badminton equipment—rackets, shuttlecocks, shoes—he's probably got it in the trunk of his car. And that's a good thing. It's not easy to find high-quality gear around here at a reasonable price.
Jay (not his real name) is standing with me on the sidelines of one of Seattle's many community centers—from SeaTac to the Central District, Bellevue to Beacon Hill—where people gather to play badminton. Some of them rove across the city throughout the week, from community center to community center, so they can play almost every night. Their badminton is not the Roaring Twenties cliché of a lazy summer lawn game, cocktail glass in one hand and racket in the other, the ice in their drinks tinkling as they gently dink a birdie back and forth. On these badminton courts—converted from basketball courts, with metal posts in the floor and nets strung tightly between them—the dominant sounds are the thwap and whir of shuttlecocks, sneakers squeaking on the hardwood, and occasional grunts of frustration over a botched shot.
Players, coaches, organizers, and officials all agree that badminton is experiencing a boom, especially on the West Coast. But nobody is able quantify it, not even Paisan Rangsikitpho, a 12-year deputy president of the Badminton World Federation. "It would be good for somebody to try and count that," he says, almost wistfully, when I call him. Clubs are popping up but not registering with any national or international federation. Community centers—like the ones Jay frequents—don't report their numbers, if they even keep track. The gray market in badminton gear further obscures the situation. Rangsikitpho, who began playing badminton as a kid in Thailand but now lives in California, sees more ambitious and entrepreneurial versions of Jay selling gear out of their trunks. "Asians who coach here will go home and bring 400 to 500 rackets back with them to sell," he says. "Markup and shipping costs in the US are very expensive. It could be that 30 to 40 percent of the rackets sold are not accounted for."
The crowd in the community center where Jay and I are standing is mostly male, mostly middle-aged or older, and almost exclusively Asian. Judging by the number of people saying "ni hao" to each other, Chinese is the dominant language. But Seattle's badminton players come from Korea, Hong Kong, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and beyond.
Jay leads me over to talk to Ton That Quy, a Vietnamese man in his late 70s who's resting between games. His English is limited, but he says he first encountered badminton as a kid in Saigon and played for Vietnam in the 1965 and 1967 Olympics. (There were no Summer Olympic Games those years—he may have meant the Southeast Asian Games, which were supervised by the International Olympic Committee.) Why does he like badminton? "Good for the body!" Ton declares. "Heart," he says and pauses, searching for the word. He points at his chest, says "no," lets his hands and shoulders droop, and then rights himself and smiles. Translation: Badminton is good for your heart.
On the court, Ton and the others play with an elegant fury—age only seems to increase their power. They typically play doubles, one player serving from the front of the court (unlike tennis) diagonally across the net. If the shuttlecock just grazes the top of the net and drops, it forces the opposing team to pop it upward, leaving them open to a potentially devastating smash-shot return. Then the game is on, one teammate taking the net, the other taking the back of the court, everyone bursting with energy like coiled springs, the shuttlecock whizzing by so fast, it looks like a white smudge. Jumping is a way to control the angle—it's harder to return the shuttlecock if it's hurtling down toward you. So the good players are jumping through the air for powerful smashes while barely breaking a sweat.
Compared to their almost tigerlike leaping, novices like me look like panicked chickens, flailing across the court and sweating copiously. The younger regulars tend to be gracious and patient, but some of the older players are scorn machines, rolling their eyes with exasperation and sometimes laughing—at me, not with me. When I play with them, and I've been playing off and on for almost a year now, I often have the sense they just want to get me out of the way so they can play with people who know what they're doing.
Jay has no patience for players with that kind of attitude. "I had words with someone at SeaTac a few days ago," he says. "I told him: 'If you don't play with them on their way up, they won't play with you on your way down!'"
Rangsikitpho, the former world federation deputy president, partially attributes the rise of badminton to new waves of Asian immigrants to the West Coast—including students and tech workers. He says the real engine of the badminton revival is coming from the second generation. "The first generation of immigrants were playing badminton, but it was limited," he says. "They had to work more when they first came to America, then played a little bit in their churches or in a public place. The second and third generations have been able to go to school, they don't have to struggle as much as their parents or grandparents here, so they have more time and more places to play. Also, the publicity from the Olympics helped."
This is a surprise, for two reasons. One, as Seattle coach Niño Gonzales points out: "You can't see badminton broadcast from the Olympics." Two, what coverage there was of badminton in the 2012 London Summer Olympics was dominated by scandal. Players from China, Indonesia, and South Korea were expelled after purposefully losing matches by serving the shuttlecock directly into the net and not even trying to keep rallies going. Because the tournament wasn't single elimination (lose once and you're out) but double elimination (losing once just bumps you to a lower bracket), the teams were throwing games to secure better positions in the next round. Spectators jeered them loudly from the stands.
So how did this help the popularity of badminton?
"Bad publicity is good publicity!" Rangsikitpho laughs. "Any publicity is good publicity! People think, 'That's a real sport because there was scandal'—no scandal, nobody writes about it... The media coverage from 2012 more than quadrupled from previous Olympic games. We have good players, yes, but a couple of scandals helps."
If badminton has a nemesis, it's tennis, which gets far more resources, attention, and respect—at least in the United States. "When tennis broke, badminton died," says Wendy Carter, a badminton champion from Canada who has coached Team USA and the Canadian National Team. We are standing on the sidelines in the Seattle Badminton Club in Kirkland, which she cofounded in 2010. Nearby, players in a weekend tournament are hammering away at each other.
How did tennis kill badminton?
"Money," she says. "More money means more exposure, more sponsorships, more media coverage, more university scholarships. And the badminton court is so small, it doesn't look as good on TV." Then there's the speed of the game, which she says makes it more difficult to follow "the complexity and the ground the players are covering" on a screen.
Gonzales, who played badminton as a high-school student in the Philippines before moving to Seattle, says that in 2004, local badminton organizer Harvey Eng went to Vancouver to record Canadian broadcasts of badminton at that year's Summer Olympics. "When he brought it back to the US, everyone said, 'I want a copy! I want a copy!'" he says, laughing.
"In the '80s, Asia began to dominate badminton," Gonzales adds. "But there were no international broadcasts—it stayed in Asia." The arrival of YouTube, he and Carter believe, helped fuel the badminton renaissance. Serious players are eager to see world-class matches, and new players can watch the matches to learn technique and strategy. Even nonplayers circulate clips: A few years ago, a segment from the Korean TV show Infinite Challenge made the rounds on sites like Funny or Die and CollegeHumor, showing Olympic gold medalist Lee Yong-dae smashing a shuttlecock so hard that it flew through the air and cracked open a watermelon on the other side of the court. Shuttlecocks weigh approximately five grams, about as much as a teaspoon of baking powder.
Can Rafael Nadal do that?
Badminton defenders also like to point to statistical comparisons with tennis. The fastest recorded tennis shot during tournament play, for example, was a 162-miles-per-hour serve by Australian Sam Groth. The fastest tournament shot in badminton was a smash by Chinese player Fu Haifeng at 206 miles per hour. The current world record for fastest-ever badminton shot is held by Malay player Tan Boon Heong, who sent a shuttlecock through the air at 262 miles per hour during speed trials for a new racket design—100 miles per hour faster than Groth's record-breaking tennis serve.
Or compare the 1985 Wimbledon final between Boris Becker and Kevin Curren to the 1985 Badminton World Championships match between Han Jian and Morten Frost. The tennis match lasted three hours and 18 minutes with the ball in play for 18 minutes. The badminton match lasted one hour and 16 minutes (about one-third of the time) with the shuttlecock in play for 37 minutes. The tennis match had 299 rallies with 1,004 shots. The badminton match had 146 rallies but with almost twice as many shots: 1,972. The "match intensity" of the tennis game—that's the time the ball was in flight divided by the length of the match—was 9 percent. The match intensity of the badminton game was 48 percent. During the match, the tennis players ran about two miles, while the badminton players ran four miles.
In other words, the badminton players worked approximately twice as hard in one-third of the time.
"When I tell my tennis friends that badminton is tougher, they look down their noses at me," says Joyce Jones, who has won more than 300 national, international, and Senior Olympics titles in badminton. "But c'mon! I'm a national champion in tennis, too—but it still doesn't give me as big a workout!"
Now in her 80s, Jones has been written up in Sports Illustrated and is still playing competitively. She's competing in the National Senior Games in Ohio this summer, and says she has to keep playing in younger age brackets because opponents her age have stopped showing up. "I usually have to play down a couple of divisions," she says. "I go to the 70 to 74 division to get really good games, and I'll play the 75 to 79 division to win."
One of her favorite triumphs was at the Canadian Badminton Championships in 2005. That year, the CBC changed its rules and allowed older individuals to play in five events. Jones is an overachiever—she entered five and won all of them, playing both singles and doubles in several age brackets. "I have won more Canadian Championships than any other player," she says (that's 73 so far). "The next closest won 58, and she'll never catch me because she died last year." Jones says that some dedicated badminton player, now in her 30s, might eventually beat her record, "but if someone does, it won't be for a long, long time, and I'll be long dead!"
Jones's most memorable match happened decades ago, when she was still in high school. Jones had met a young navy sailor at a roller rink with her skate-dance club. ("We called ourselves the Dragons," she says. "We made him an honorary member because he could do most of the dance steps and everything.") They got to talking about badminton, and Jones was eager to trounce him on the court. "I could beat anybody in my high school," she says. "I thought I was hot stuff."
The sailor won the coin toss, served first, and skunked her, 15 to 0. (He'd been playing badminton since he was a small child with his parents' church club.) "Not only did I not get a point, I never even got to serve," she remembers. "I found out I wasn't such hot stuff after all. But I decided I was going to marry him, so he didn't stand a chance." They've been married for 65 years.
When she was younger, Jones says, badminton had a more glamorous profile. "In the 1950s and '60s, all of the movie stars and everyone were playing badminton," she says. "It was the thing. Then it died out, and it was hard to find anywhere to play or anyone to play with." She agrees with Carter that tennis might have had something to do with it—she took up tennis herself when she was 46.
But about 10 years ago, Jones noticed a new influx of Asian American players revitalizing the game. "Now I play at a club at the Korean church in Edmonds," she says. "There are probably about 40 people who play there, and there are probably only a half-dozen of us who are Caucasian."
Boris Poon, an ebullient adult badminton coach from China—he used to work as a grief counselor at cemeteries—agrees with Jones and Rangsikitpho that Asians are bringing the game back. "I think badminton is one of the most played sports in Asia, and maybe even the world—after soccer," Poon says. "At the Bellevue Badminton Club, there are around 200 students, and more than 80 percent of them are Asian."
"Maybe Asian parents see it as a good sport," he says. "It's familiar to them and it's no contact—not like hockey or football. The kids don't get a concussion!" Poon believes badminton is continuing to pick up steam in China partly because people have more leisure time now and partly because the country has cultivated badminton stars such as Lin Dan, the hyperaggressive player who, by the age of 28, had won all the major titles in badminton: the Olympics (twice), the All England Open (five times), the World Cup, the World Championships, the Thomas Cup, the Sudirman Cup, the Asian Games, the Asian Championships, and the Super Series Masters Finals.
Chinese badminton has also been energized by its big haul of medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics—a fact pooh-poohed by some American reporters in their efforts to downplay the fact that China took more gold medals than the United States overall: 51 to 36. For example, longtime sports reporter Tim Sullivan wrote in the San Diego Union-Tribune: "Many of the Chinese medals were earned in sports Americans don't take seriously—badminton and table tennis, for example."
I guess that depends on who you consider an American.
As a result of surging demand in Western Washington, Poon says, the Bellevue Badminton Club recently expanded from 5 courts to 10, the Seattle Badminton Club in Kirkland opened just a few years ago, public community centers and community college gyms are offering more time for badminton, and there is talk of more private clubs in the future. "Back in 2000, we had to rent a gym near the golf course two nights a week to play," Poon says. "Now it's at a peak of popularity."
The romance of badminton is embodied by its shuttlecock: 16 feathers, preferably from a goose (though a duck will do), and preferably from the goose's left wing, are threaded together and glued to a piece of cork. Why feathers from the left wing? "The goose's left wing and right wing are curved differently," says Rangsikitpho. "If you look with your eye, you may not see it, but it's the way the feathers shape and flow. When you hit it, it has to spin only one way." A shuttlecock made from the feathers of the left wing will spin clockwise. One made from the feathers of the right wing will spin differently—an inconsistency that screws up the game. "Mix them up, right wing and left wing," Rangsikitpho says, "and it will not spin but wobble. Mother Nature made the goose and the duck that way." He adds that a few years ago, animal-rights activists tried to make a stink about the use of goose feathers, but he explained to them that it was a by-product—the geese are bound for butcher shops or being plucked for down pillows and jackets. If the feathers of their left wings weren't used for shuttlecocks, they'd be used for something else, or just thrown away.
Badminton rackets, of course, are subject to all the high-tech, high-money nerdiness of tennis rackets—a 2012 Wired article described how the Yonex company was developing an elite psychological-warfare racket with superfine materials in its frame to filter out high- and low-pitched sound waves to make each shot sound louder, sharper, and more intimidating. But the feathered shuttlecock is what makes badminton so distinctive. "The shuttlecock has not changed for how many years?" asks Rangsikitpho. "Fifty? Seventy-five? One hundred years?"
Carter, of the Seattle Badminton Club, says that feathered shuttlecocks have a unique aerodynamic profile, which is partly what gives badminton its character as a sport. Unlike the spherical and stable tennis ball, the shuttlecock can fly off a racket at extraordinary speeds. When it's hit, the feathers dramatically contract, giving it less drag. "It goes faster just after it's hit," Carter says. "Then the feathers expand, slowing it down—that's why the shuttlecock goes fast, then slows."
Nobody knows exactly when or where people first started playing with shuttlecocks. Historians and archeologists have found evidence of them—pieces of cork, wood, or corn husks with feathers sticking out from behind—all over the world. According to Chinese historians, the ancient game of jianzi—a cross between badminton and hacky sack, where players hit the shuttlecock with their feet—came from an old military training exercise. During the Han Dynasty, jianzi spread to Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam. In 1508, Vietnamese poet Nguyen Gian Thanh described a lively street scene in Hanoi where "young men tuck up their tunics and play shirtless shuttlecock." Badminton historian Jean-Yves Guillain describes coming across a similar game in Malaysia called chap-teh that used hibiscus flowers instead of feathers.
People were playing shuttlecock games in North America, too—in 1903, anthropologist Matilda Coxe Stevenson described a Zuni game in New Mexico called po'kinanane, "so named," she wrote, "because the sound produced by the shuttlecock coming in contact with the palm of the hand is similar to the noise of the tread of a jack rabbit upon frozen snow. The game is played as frequently by the younger boys as by their elders, and always for stakes. One bets that he can toss the shuttlecock a given number of times... wagers are often made for twenty, fifty, and sometimes a hundred throws." The Zuni, she reported, claim to have invented the game.
One of the earliest documented uses of paddles to bat around a shuttlecock comes from the Muromachi period in Japan (1338–1573). The game, called hanetsuki, was a New Year's ritual where players—especially young women—hit the shuttle back and forth, trying to keep it in the air as long as possible. According to tradition, the longer they could keep it aloft, the more protection they'd have from mosquitoes in the coming year.
In Europe, a similar game called "battledore and shuttlecock," or jeu de volant, had been around at least since the 1600s and was popular among children and the rich, i.e., people with some leisure time.
But the birth of badminton as we know it comes from British-occupied India. Historians disagree on exactly how it happened. Some say guests at a party in the Pune region stuck feathers into a champagne cork, used the bottles as bats, and called the game "Poona," after its birthplace. Others say the British adapted it from a local sport and brought it back home with them.
Either way, the game made its way to an aristocratic house called Badminton in England. Historian Sunil Kumar describes the transmission in his book Badminton Skills & Rules:
Badminton takes its name from the county residence Badminton of the Duke of Beaufort situated in the Southern part of the country of Gloucestershire, England. The game came about through the combination of two games, Poona and Battledore. English army officers, serving in India in [the] 1860s were very much taken by a game which was similar, and yet far superior to battledore and shuttlecock, known as Poona. They enjoyed it so much that they took it home, together with some of the Indian equipment, chiefly shuttlecocks. Some of the officers on leave were friends of the Duke of Beaufort, who invited them to play the game at Badminton. The army officers then took the sport to India where they played it first in Karachi.
The Badminton estate had been around for a long time—it is listed as "Madmintune" in the Domesday Book, the 1086 survey by William the Conqueror—and was a fitting namesake for the new game, since various dukes of Beaufort have gone down in history as lovers of games and leisure. An account from the late 1600s describes the "pompous stables" of Badminton house and how "for the duke and duchess, and their friends, there was no time of day without diversion," including "breakfast in her gallery that opened into the gardens; then, perhaps, a deer was to be killed." At the time of badminton's arrival at Badminton, the Eighth Duke of Beaufort had already begun publishing a series of books on sports and pastimes. His family clearly loved battledore and shuttlecock—in 1830, they supposedly broke a record with 2,117 hits in a single rally.
But badminton brought an innovation: competition. The object of battledore, like the picnic badminton we play today, is cooperative—to keep the shuttlecock in the air. But competitive badminton is all about getting the shuttlecock over the net and driving it into the ground.
By the standards of the day, the new game went viral. In 1875, a New York Times correspondent in Calcutta described preparations for a visit from the Prince of Wales:
In the afternoon there will be a large garden party at Belvedere, the residence of Sir Richard Temple, the present Lieutenant Governor of Bengal. The Prince will be present and will, I suppose, play his first game of badminton—a resuscitation of the now obsolete battledore and shuttlecock of our nursery days, with sundry improvements which add greatly to the excitement of the contest. A net five feet high is stretched across a strip of smooth lawn marked out into courts like a miniature tennis ground, the players, generally three a side, range themselves on opposite sides of the net, the shuttlecock flies backward and forward, sometimes for minutes together, and these prolonged rallies are always exciting. Badminton has quite ousted croquet in India, and is a great favorite with the ladies.
By 1900, the Seattle Times was reporting on badminton tournaments held in Vancouver, BC, in its society pages. And on October 3, 1935, it reported: "The first fraternity to construct a badminton court on the University of Washington campus last spring was treated more or less as outcast by the 'he men' of other fraternities. The game was looked on as a 'sissy' pastime. However, another fraternity joined the first and then another, until now badminton 'is the thing' with the fraternity lads."
The shuttlecock had arrived in Seattle, at least for the "fraternity lads." This was just a few years after Seattle's anti-Chinese riots, while the US Chinese Exclusion Act was still in full force. If Asian immigrants had been playing badminton or its ancestor jianzi in the early 1900s, I couldn't find any mention of it in the Seattle Times.
I have my own theory about the recent rise of badminton, partly inspired by "Jumpin' Jim" Beloff, one of the early evangelists of the current ukulele revival. In an interview last year, he told me the ukulele was becoming popular again because the barrier to entry is low—the average person can learn a basic ukulele song in just a few minutes—but the ceiling of possibility is so high. Players like Jake Shimabukuro, George Harrison, and Lyle Ritz have coaxed astoundingly complicated and jazzy music out of an instrument most people regard as a toy. But the ukulele is friendly that way. You can play it as casually or as seriously as you like.
Badminton, I would argue, is the ukulele of sports. Anyone can pick it up and dink around, but that's a galaxy away from really playing. Until you've seen it played at its highest level, you have no idea how challenging, and how gorgeous, it can be.
That's why I felt such a shock the first time I blithely strolled into a Seattle community center for an evening of badminton. I had played the game, but I had never played the sport. And athletes like Ton That Quy (I'm pretty sure he was there that night) made sure I knew it by handing me my blithe ass repeatedly, sometimes rolling their eyes while they did it.
Every embarrassing flub on my end of the court, every shuttlecock hurtling directly toward my face, rammed home a simple truth: I was playing badminton for the first time in my life, and it was not a lazy summer lawn game. I had walked onto the court aimlessly, ignorantly, and I walked off it sweaty, worn out, and slightly humiliated. But my eyes had been opened. Biking home that night, I thought about the Seattle badminton world—an entire network and community spread across the city that had, until then, been invisible to me.