A little birdie told us
Jan. 26, 2005
John Y. Wehmueller
Staff Writer

When Kimberly Kramer was small, she and her family sometimes played badminton in their backyard in Potomac. It must have been a very American kind of scene -- net staked in the ground, smoking grill nearby, plastic birdie, the whole deal.

When Kramer got to middle school and wanted to play a sport, she fondly remembered those days in the backyard.

"I had tried all the different usual sports -- basketball, soccer and tennis -- and I didn't really like any of them a whole lot," Kramer said. "So my mom said, 'Well, pick another sport from the Montgomery County Department of Recreation handbook.' And I said, 'Hey, they have badminton. I've played that in my backyard.'"

It took one look upon walking into the gym on her first day to make Kramer realize that whatever they were doing inside, it was not the game she had played in her backyard.

What they were doing inside was also called badminton, but it was a sport rather than a game. It's an Olympic sport, in fact, wildly popular in Eastern Asia, parts of Europe, and for a relatively few devoted players in the United States. Kimberly Kramer of Potomac now counts herself among those devoted few.

Kramer, a 16-year-old junior at Churchill High School, joined 187 fellow junkies this weekend at the University of Maryland for the National Capital Open badminton tournament. The three-day event mostly featured players from D.C., Virginia and Maryland, but also drew participants from up and down the East Coast.

The tournament, sanctioned by USA Badminton and the Northeast Badminton Association, is one of the largest on the East Coast. Any resemblance between the sport played there and the back yard game of Kramer's youth is purely on the surface.

For one thing, badminton the sport doesn't come in a box. Many players bring bags filled with four or more rackets; between games, they have their rackets restrung to make sure they have just the right tension.

The venue has to have a ceiling high enough to contain lobs. And the sport has to be played indoors, so wind won't affect the flight of the shuttlecock; that means no heat or air conditioning, either.

And remember the little plastic mesh birdie with half of a red rubber ball glued onto it? Nuh-uh. The birds used this weekend had cork heads, not rubber. And the feathers were real -- 19 of them, plucked from the left wing of a goose.

"Most people think it's only for backyards," said Gary Cho, Montgomery County's unofficial badminton guru. "But I think the sport is more challenging than tennis. You run all the time, more than in tennis."

Cho moved to the area 11 years ago from his native Taiwan. He found a group of friends to play badminton with, and soon, his friends were bringing their kids to Cho for lessons. Eventually, Cho began an academy, which now includes 30 junior players, most from Montgomery County, some among the nation's elite.

One of Cho's students is Sameer Gunatileka, who won three titles -- singles, doubles and mixed doubles -- at the 2003 Junior Nationals and defended two of those titles in 2004. Gunatileka, a Sherwood graduate currently enrolled at Montgomery College, finished second in men's singles and doubles Sunday, beaten both times by Radu Milevschi, a native of Eastern Europe living in Connecticut.

Gunatileka's older brother got him into badminton back in their native Sri Lanka. The family moved to Olney when Sameer was 12, but he stayed active in the sport.

"Here, it's not as competitive and the sport is not really popular," Gunatileka said. "There, they have the sport in the high schools. When we moved here, people didn't even know what it was. ... If you're a stranger [here], it'd be hard to find a place to play, unless they know somebody who plays at a gym."

Many of Cho's pupils are like Gunatileka -- either immigrants themselves, or the children of immigrants. Many are from Asia, where the sport is most popular.

Herbert Wu, a semifinalist in men's singles, is a student and instructor at Cho's academy. Wu, a Germantown resident, was introduced to the sport by his father, who, like Cho, emigrated from Taiwan.

"It started with my dad," Wu said. "He'd take me with him, and I'd sit on the bench and play with my toys while he played. ... It's something not many people around here know about. To me, it's unique."

But why is that? According to USA Badminton, the sport enjoyed a heyday in this country between 1949 and '67. In those 18 years, Americans won 23 world championships, at least one in every division (men's and women's singles and doubles, plus mixed doubles).

For whatever reason, it's different now.

"At the international level, the U.S. is kind of a joke," Kramer said. "I've heard commentators on TV making jokes about how bad the U.S. is."

Kramer is a relatively rare breed in the local badminton community -- a white Anglo-Saxon who grew up thinking of badminton as a game played at picnics and barbecues. She said she couldn't even make contact with a bird on her first day at Cho's academy. Cho gave her personal lessons until she caught up, and Kramer has since been to Junior Nationals and the Pan-Am junior games in Peru.

Kramer happened to walk into a relative hotbed of badminton, at least in U.S. terms. In part because of efforts at the junior level like Cho's, and in part because of the high concentration of immigrants, the D.C. area is actually very badminton-friendly. California is easily the center of the sport in this country, with the D.C. and Boston areas as the East Coast hot spots.

For Cho, the reason for badminton's obscurity in the country as a whole boils down to one word -- media.

"It's hard to watch badminton on TV in this country, so most Americans don't' understand the sport," Cho said. "It's not popular because it's not on TV. TV can't broadcast it, because so far, the market is low."

Gunatileka said, "Here, it's football. Most people like football because you get to hit people. But in Asia, they like it because you get to run around. It's a pretty fast game."

Badminton did receive some television coverage during the 2004 Athens Olympics. And the 2005 World Cup will be held in California, the largest badminton tournament ever held in the U.S., Cho said.

Both events have enthusiasts in this country excited for the future. But for now, it's still a hard sell. For many Americans, badminton remains either a game to play in the backyard, or a sport that's played in other countries.

"Most of my friends, at the beginning, they were like 'What are you doing? You're ditching us to go play badminton?,'" Kramer said. "But now that I've been more successful, they think it's kind of cool. Even though none of them have actually seen me play."