Badminton, pingpong make Asia's day Denmark's Hoyer-Larsen adds to superstar status

August 02, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- The Danish McEnroe.

He used to throw rackets. He used to argue with officials. Now, he's just a happily married guy with a year-old son and a penchant for wearing 7-year-old "lucky" sneakers and wielding a 6-year-old "lucky" racket.

Poul-Erik Hoyer-Larsen may not be the most famous man in America. But in Denmark, he is a wealthy superstar. And in Asia, he is lionized.

He is the world's best badminton player.

Yesterday, Hoyer-Larsen won the men's badminton gold at the Centennial Summer Olympics. He upset Asia's day.

Forget Michael Johnson. Forget the Dream Team.

For Asia, there was a bigger double bill, yesterday.

Badminton in the morning.

Table tennis in the afternoon.

In Georgia State University's small, steamy gymnasium, badminton players competed for gold medals for only the second time in Olympic history.

Hoyer-Larsen won the final, 15-12, 15-10, and as the last shuttlecock floated to the floor, he dropped to the ground, banged his fist, and then ran around the gym waving to a few hundred Danish fans who had spent most of the match screaming Europe's all-purpose "Ole" soccer chant.

Dong Jiong cried.

A billion or so Asians watched on television.

Not bad for a sport that most Americans associate with a backyard barbecue.

But in China, Indonesia and South Korea, plus parts of Europe, badminton is serious stuff. Fourteen million Asians play the game. There's a world tour with rankings, prize money and endorsements. There's even an All England championship, the Wimbledon for the shuttlecock set.

Basically, Olympic badminton is like tennis, without the whining. The shuttlecock comes off the racket at around 200 mph, and slows down very quickly, like a parachute opening at 10,000 feet. The athletes grunt and groan for shots. The crowds applaud.

And the players really are stars. Women's gold medalist Bang Soo-hyun, of South Korea, daughter of a comedian, doesn't do punch lines, she rams slam dunks down the throats of her opponents, beating one unlucky player earlier in the tournament in 10 minutes.

Hoyer-Larsen is said to be a millionaire, even though he claims to earn "about what the 100th-ranked tennis player does."

But Hoyer-Larsen said he didn't play in the Olympics for money. He played for the medal.

Next stop: Table tennis at the Georgia World Congress Center, a cavernous hall that is the Games' version of "Let's Make A Deal." Behind door No. 1: wrestling. Behind door No. 2: team handball. And behind door No. 3: pingpong.

The all-China men's final matched Liu Guoliang, the sleek rising star, against Wang Tao, the 14-year veteran of China's national team.

Who could blame the Chinese for being serene before a gold-medal match? The sport is their national game. They are expected to dominate the world.

Table tennis helped bring Americans to China during the Nixon administration. It's also the sport in which politics flared at these Games, when spectators from Taiwan were told not to wave their blue and red flags, which were banned here as a concession to mainland China.

The women's final Wednesday might have been the grudge match of the entire Games, when China's Deng Yaping defeated Chen Jing, a former mainlander who fled to Taiwan after the 1992 Barcelona Games. The Central News Agency billed it as "the showdown of the century."

Yesterday's men's final was the snooze of Atlanta.

With all the passion of a couple of clerks, Liu and Wang smashed the fluorescent orange ball onto the bright purple table for 45 minutes. They split the first four games.

But a funny thing happened in the final game. Wang started to play like an amateur. He missed the easiest of shots. He gave up 12 of the first 13 points. He lost, 21-5.

He wasn't even angry.

Strange how the guard changes in Chinese table tennis.

Liu got his gold, Wang silver.

And Asia had its day.

Pub Date: 8/02/96

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