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Watch the Birdie
Steve Rushin
July 22, 1996
DEEP IN JAVA, THE DREAMS HAVE WINGS
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July 22, 1996

Watch The Birdie

DEEP IN JAVA, THE DREAMS HAVE WINGS

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In a game that has literally abandoned its grass roots, Central Java is where you will still find them.

"Badminton is my life," says Basri Yusuf, a businessman in the Central Javanese city of Solo. "That is what they say here: 'Badminton is my life.' "

Here the town square is more of a rectangle: a dirt court glowing a cadaverous blue beneath fluorescent striplights. The lights are powered by cables strung from the windows of four houses. People pull easy chairs from their homes and watch the play go on until well past midnight. It resumes before school the next morning at 6:30. There are challenge matches with other neighborhoods. All in all, it is a joyous good time, like "baskets" in Brooklyn. That is what they say here: Badminton is my life.

And, often, my living. There are 3,600 residents in the Central Javanese village of Tegal, and half of them work for the Gadjah Mada company, handcrafting shuttlecocks, each made with 16 identical goose feathers. A stream runs through Tegal, and workers clean and dry the feathers on its banks. Geese waddle by, but these birdies will not become birdies, because they are pets, unlike those raised to feather the shuttlecocks.

The villagers, however, call the sport's feathered projectile neither a birdie nor a shuttlecock but a bal, which is also another way to say badminton. At midday several teens repair to one of 11 dirt courts to play bal, testing their handicrafts beneath a canopy of coconut and mango trees.

In Klaten, 125 miles to the southeast, locals play bulutangkis beneath the thatched roof of the village's famous hall. Just outside its bamboo walls the locals once made world-renowned supra-wood rackets by hand—until the world switched to graphite. "No problem," to borrow a favorite borrowed expression in Indonesia. The workers retooled, and now they hand make their renowned supra-wood...acoustic guitars.

A stringed quartet is playing doubles on the court today. The players are members of a top-flight club from Solo with the unfortunate acronym of PMS. Suprianto played for PMS from age 10 until he was 16, when he joined the national team in Jakarta. "I want to be champion!" a 13-year-old boy tells a visitor from the U.S.

"Can I see your American money?" asks a 14-year-old girl. Shown a five-spot, the schoolgirl giggles like a schoolgirl. "Can I keep it for my collection!"

To many Javanese the host nation of these Olympics is a source of guarded fascination. Herman S. Karamoy is a sportswriter for the Protestant weekly Tribun who loves the Beach Boys, the Everly Brothers and "Kirk Douglas in The Last Sunset." But as midnight draws near in a Solo coffee shop, he voices a concern. "I think the Cuckoo Clan is very big in Atlanta," he says, aptly mispronouncing Ku Klux Klan. "I don't think they will like my dark skin in Atlanta." Assured that this notion is as antiquated as the Everly Brothers, he brightens. "At-lan-ta!" says Karamoy, who is given to bursts of almanac-style facts. "Home office of Coca-Cola and CNN!"

Indeed, Karamoy desperately wants to attend these Olympics, if only because his nation may not win any gold medals in badminton at the 2000 or 2004 Games. With the exception of Mia Audina, at 16 the youngest athlete at the training center, Indonesia is likely to have a bare cupboard come 2000. That raises the stakes for Atlanta.

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