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Watch the Birdie
Steve Rushin
July 22, 1996
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July 22, 1996

Watch The Birdie


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Java is roughly the size of Louisiana, and about as bucolic as Bourbon Street. In the 1.5 million years since Java man lived there, the island has expanded lo MN million residents. Vacuum-packed Java, indeed. The population of Louisiana, by comparison, is just over four million, and Java's ought to be no more than 75 million, according to its own government. This means there is a surplus of 34 million Javanese, each of whom is driving a Toyota in a different direction in Jakarta this morning, everyone hurrying hell-bent for the city's single available parking space.

Into this vehicular hysteria steers R.A.J. Gosal. He is marveling that the city of Jakarta, on the island of Java, in the republic of Indonesia, has become the world capital of a very unlikely sport. Jakarta, blacktopped and brim-filled with people, is now ground zero for the game popularized on a broad, billiard-table-green lawn in Gloucestershire, England, at the duke of Beaufort's country manor, Badminton. The game's popularity spread to continental Europe, and it was introduced to Indonesia by the Dutch, who colonized the islands in the 17th century.

"It's like baskets in the States," says Gosal, general secretary of the Indonesian Badminton Association. "Or like soccer in Brazil. Here badminton became a sport of the public before World War II and became more and more popular in the 1940s and '50s. Now the government and the people, their hopes are on badminton." He pauses meaningfully. "And their expectations."

Indeed, "there is a feeling that we must take two gold medals in Atlanta," the mono-handled Supardi, a sportswriter for the popular daily Suara Pembaruan, said a day earlier. He spoke over tea in the lobby of Jakarta's Mandarin Oriental hotel, where Indonesian newspapers hung dolefully from teak gripper rods, bearing ominous news: The national badminton team had not been playing to the nation's impossible standards.

Bulutangkis, as the game is called in Indonesian, is of grave importance to the people of this country. So the national association is run by an army general; a poor Asian Games performance in 1994 had President Suharto himself saying that he was "really concerned" about the squad; and a pessimistic ex-player had looked toward the Summer Olympics in the papers on this morning in March and proclaimed, "We won't win playing like this."

At the national team's training center, on the eastern fringe of Jakarta, 28-year-old Allan Budi Kusuma allows himself a sigh. "Because we won two gold medals in '92, the government wants some more in Atlanta," says Kusuma, who won the men's singles gold medal in Barcelona, where badminton was a medal sport for the first time. "Well, it is easy to say but not so easy to do."

Because of these pressures, "badminton is just like a job," says Susi Susanti, 25, whose women's singles victory in Barcelona brought Indonesia its first Olympic gold medal in 43 years of independence. "But, yes, I still enjoy it. You have to enjoy it to do this."

A hundred shuttlecocks fill the floor in front of her like discarded cups from a watercooler. Susanti, Kusuma and some 80 other national-team members practice six days a week on the training center's 21 indoor courts. The players live in cramped dormitories on the edge of the center, which is on a dirt road marked by fluttering laundry and skittering chickens. "They are world champions but live in these small rooms," says Gosal in a dorm whose narrow hall is lined with stickered suitcases. Team members are constantly kiting off to play tournaments around the world.

A legend painted on a wall of the center reads, BADMINTON IS MY SOUL. SPORTSMANSHIP IS MY BREATH. RED AND WHITE IS THE SYMBOL OF MY FATE. To be sure, the colors of the national Hag are not the only ones that motivate these players. "Indonesia is very famous for the money," notes Joko Suprianto, the top male badminton player in both Indonesia and the world. The government gave Kusuma $200,000 for winning his gold medal; Susanti received the same plus, because she is a more-decorated champion, a house. Both players have sponsorship deals with Opel and Yonex, and the ponytailed Susanti also shills for Rejoice!, a shampoo. One athlete's BMW sits at curbside. "It's not so glamorous," says Kusuma. "We are not so special." But a team member's life is immeasurably more comfortable than that of the average Indonesian, whose annual income is $1,000.

The badminton skills of the top Indonesians are astonishing. Suprianto can send a shuttlecock screaming at 200 miles per hour, which makes him a ringer in most any backyard barbecue match. Of course, he is no more typical of badminton in Indonesia than Michael Jordan is of "baskets" in the U.S. "If you want to see the traditional badminton, you must go to Central Java," says Gosal. "You must go to Klaten, where they still play in a bamboo hall. You must see them make shuttlecocks in the village of Tegal. That is the real, traditional badminton of Indonesia."

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