LONDON — Here is the curious timeline of a badminton Olympian:
Sept. 21, 2000. At the Sydney Olympics, Tony Gunawan helps Indonesia win gold in men’s doubles — just the fourth gold in the country’s history and its only one at the 2000 Games. He and his partner, Candra Wijaya, are feted in parades as national heroes. They split a bonus of one billion rupiah (the equivalent of $117,000) and are each awarded a small country house. Gunawan is 25 years old and his doubles team remains ranked No. 1 in the world, until …
Oct. 3, 2001. The Xinhua News translates big news out of Jakarta:
Indonesian top men’s doubles player Tony Gunawan shocked badminton fans by announcing his retirement from the sport in order to study abroad, the Jakarta Post reported Wednesday. Tony … said he planned to continue his study in computer science and rejected speculation that he would move to another country. “I am an Indonesian and I will remain my nationality. Even if I play abroad, it’s more to earn income to finance my study. I won’t represent another country. I can promise you that,” he said.
July 28, 2012. Twelve years after winning gold for Indonesia, and 11 years after his first retirement, Gunawan returns to an Olympic badminton court at Wembley Arena — as a member of Team USA. At 36, he is the oldest male shuttler in the field. He and 33-year-old doubles partner Howard Bach both vow that this is their last Olympics. They lose their opening match of round-robin play in straight sets to the world’s No. 2-ranked team, South Korea’s Chung Jae Sung and Lee Yong Dae, after giving the heavy favorites a brief scare in the second game.
What happened in that 12-year gap? How did Gunawan get here, as an American citizen and one half of the U.S.’ only (long-shot) chance at contending for a badminton medal?
When he retired in 2001, Gunawan was being honest about not playing under another flag (“I didn’t think I’d be back in this game at all,” he said), but he did have designs on relocating to the U.S. His then-fiancé, former Indonesian shuttler Eti Tantri, had retired from the sport and moved to the Los Angeles area to enroll in college. They were talking seriously about their future, about having children and finding new careers. Even though Gunawan was a sporting star in Indonesia, the pull from across the Pacific was too strong. “I figured,” he said, “that I could go to the U.S. and just become a coach while I studied.”
Don Chew, a 71-year-old former USA Badminton president who told the Los Angeles Times that he’s put $6.5 million of his own money into elevating the sport in the U.S. — including opening the $3-million, world-class Orange County Badminton Club — sponsored Gunawan’s visa and offered him a job as an instructor at the club. The hope was that Gunawan could use his expertise to help develop future American Olympians.
Gunawan accepted the offer and moved in January 2002, after which he enrolled at a DeVry Institute to study computer engineering. He obtained a green card in 2005, the same year the world championships came to the Arrowhead Pond in nearby Anaheim. Gunawan didn’t need to be a citizen to represent the U.S. in that event, so he and Bach, who competed in doubles at the 2004 Olympics, entered the tournament together to help raise local awareness for the sport. They proceeded to do something unexpected: win the U.S.’ first-ever gold at a worlds. That propelled Gunawan back into major competitions while also derailing his computer studies. Although his initial plan was to retire again in 2009, he obtained U.S. citizenship in September 2011 and agreed to a last hurrah in London. “It turned out,” Gunawan said, “that I cannot get out from badminton.”
He and Bach have no room for error left at these Olympics, as they must win Sunday’s match against Malaysian pair Koo Kien Keat and Tan Boon Heong to stay alive in pool play. The Americans started slow on Saturday (losing the first game 21-14) in part because they have no sparring partners stateside who can keep them acclimated to the breakneck speed of high-level international competition. They hired Malaysian juniors to help them train prior to the Games, and enlisted a Scottish team that didn’t qualify for the Olympics to work with them in London. The elite teams from China and Korea, which have multiple men’s doubles entries, can spar amongst themselves. Once Gunawan and Bach got comfortable with the pace of the No. 2-ranked Koreans, they stayed neck-and-neck in the second game and were tied 19-19 before being done in by two match-ending mistakes.
Despite being only three and a half years younger than Gunawan, Bach has great reverence for his partner, who was still able to confound the Koreans with his kill shots. Gunawan hasn’t lost his ability to deceive opponents in mid-air; it’s nearly impossible to predict the path of his overheads prior to the moment the racquet connects with the shuttle. “Having this guy on the court with me is like getting Michael Jordan to come back,” Bach said. “He’s a legend in Indonesia.”
At these Olympics, Indonesia’s legend is America’s elder statesman, a father of two young boys and a coach of 36 children back at the San Gabriel Valley Badminton Club in El Monte, Calif. Gunawan has endured only scattered criticism from his former homelanders in the lead-up to the Games; a few have called him a traitor, but he believes he “paid his dues” to Indonesia before making a family decision to emigrate. The price he paid for that was to become an anonymous athlete in the U.S., where badminton remains but a far-fringe sport. In 2000, when Gunawan walked in the opening ceremony for Indonesia, he was among the most famous in its delegation — a striking difference from what it was like to walk with the Americans on Friday night on London.
The thing he’ll most cherish from that experience, he said, was getting his picture taken with Kevin Durant.