Not In My Back Yard

A love for Badminton, a revered Olympic sport in other nations, earns only derision around here. But local players are undeterred

September 25, 2000|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

Rick Wiker went looking for his favorite Olympic sport in the TV listings the other day. It is a game of rocketing smashes and fluttery drop shots, of leaps and lunges, power and finesse. But, as Wiker found, it is a game you won't be seeing on television.

The sport is badminton, and by now you are probably laughing, or uttering one of the tired catcalls long used by sports columnists and the meat-and-potatoes masses whenever the subject of Olympic badminton comes up:

Wimp sport. Backyard barbecue diversion. Whadda joke.

Wiker, 50, has endured them all over the years, and so have others in the Catonsville Badminton Club, which meets to play every Sunday night.

"When you get to this level of playing somewhat competitively, and you hear people talking about the `barbecue sport,' you get kind of irritated," says member Aaron Kadremas, 25, a trombonist in the U.S. Army Field Band. "People at work always give me a hard time about it. I've invited my colleagues to come and play, but no one has taken me up on it."

If anyone ever does, here's what they'll find: three hardwood badminton courts in the gym of Catonsville Middle School where 12 players are in action at a time in doubles matches while others wait their turn. Voices echo from the high ceiling, grunting in effort or shouting scores amid the squeak of sneakers. Rackets hiss, ping and thwack. Birds alternately tear through the air or float downward, light as parachutes, landing with soft rubbery taps.

Several members have won state titles or other tournaments. The youngest are on high school teams, the oldest are in their 60s. There are both men and women. Some come from India, China or other countries. And if you think you can just walk in from the street and beat them, you'd better think again.

"I have a friend who makes fun of me all the time for playing badminton," says Nehemiah Brown, 17, a freshman at Villa Julie College who played on his high school team. "He actually came one time."

Brown pauses, smiling at the memory. "I whupped up on him."

Ask members when they last saw their sport on television, and answers are hard to come by.

Raghu Vallurupatti, 38, who came from India in 1987 to earn his Ph.D in computer science at UMBC, vaguely remembers setting his VCR to tape a big match from Germany on ESPN2. That was years ago.

He also remembers watching badminton in the '96 Olympics in Atlanta, but only because he got a ticket and went there.

"It was incredibly quick and agile," he says. "For 30 or 40 minutes you're running, moving and streaking all over the court."

James Martin, 15, a sophomore on the Catonsville High School team, also found a match on TV one night. It, too, was several years ago.

"It was at probably, like, 11:30," Martin says. "It was pretty late. The players were all Asian. They were really good."

Therein lies the rub regarding badminton and U.S. television. Although the top-flight players are indeed "really good," most come either from the Pacific Rim or Denmark, a mix ill-suited to the jingoism that seems to guide so much of NBC's Olympics coverage. Only one American badminton player even qualified for this year's games, and he was quickly eliminated.

Oddly enough, in the days when the United States fared better in international competition, Baltimore was something of a hotbed of the sport, due largely to the presence of a transplanted Irishman, J. Frank Devlin.

Devlin was a six-time world champion who moved to the city in 1937. He promoted the game and trained national and world champions, a group that included two of his daughters.

In the midst of that interest, the Catonsville Badminton Club was formed in the 1950s, run by a fellow named Hank Bonnett, who played into his 80s.

Wiker took over the club 20 years ago from Bonnett and has won two seniors doubles titles. His son Nick, 15, a fine player in his own right, has been playing since age 9 and helped developed a club Web site that is attracting new members in search of a regular game.

And for those seeking more action than once-a-week, Vallurupatti has the lowdown: "On Mondays there's a club in Columbia. In Loch Raven on Thursdays. One in Rockville Tuesdays and Saturdays."

But neither Baltimore nor the United States is the hotbed it once was. Indonesia is where the action is today. Top stars are revered as sporting gods, and tournament winners can earn more than $100,000 a pop.

Compare that to the ceramic mug that Wiker and Vallurupatti collected for winning the doubles title in a C-level tournament in Pennsylvania a few years ago (C-Level might be equated to AA-level professional baseball - good but not major league).

So, Wiker wasn't exactly surprised when he checked NBC's Web site and found the news that he relayed to club members on a recent Sunday: "None of the NBC channels are showing badminton unless you live in Canada."

Oh well, says Matt Martin, 17, who is James Martin's brother and badminton teammate at Catonsville High. "It's probably one of those things you'll hear about the next morning. `Oh, the badminton finals were yesterday? Oh, I guess I missed it.' "

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