‘When You Say Badminton, You Say Indonesia’

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JAKARTA — Raja Sapta Oktohari, the muscular and youthful president of the Indonesian Olympic Committee, was finding it hard to contain his enthusiasm.

Badminton, he explained in an interview early this year, is more than a casual pastime in his country. It is part of the country’s social fabric, a game played by families in backyards and cramped public spaces and by shop workers waiting for clients.

“When you say badminton, you say Indonesia,” Oktohari declared. “That is how important it is.”

So it was a blow to Indonesia’s sporting culture when the Tokyo Olympics were postponed earlier this year because of the growing coronavirus pandemic. Badminton is the only sport in which Indonesia has won an Olympic gold medal, a feat its players have achieved seven times. It is, in an Olympic year, the only sport that matters here.

The coronavirus has tested that commitment since The Times visited in February to document badminton’s place in Indonesian life, but it hasn’t dimmed it a bit. Slowly but surely, the game and its players are emerging from lockdown. For months, training centers and courts in Jakarta have been closed, but any easing of rules will revive familiar routines, even if coaching instructions will have to come from behind masks and face shields.

The Olympics, rescheduled for next year, are never far from the players’ minds. The national squad recently held an internal tournament “so they could not feel bored and can measure the results of training programs” during the lockdown, one official said.

Coaches and players hope Jakarta’s clubs will rumble back to life soon, too, bringing the sport — and its future — out of its temporary hibernation.

It is in those smaller gyms and neighborhoods where the sport that has been nurtured for decades by mentors like Christian Hadinata, a 70-year-old former world champion. In regular times, Hadinata could be found each weekday morning at 6 a.m. on the courts of the Djarum Badminton Club in Jakarta, waiting for his students to arrive.

Uncle Chris, as Hadinata is known to the junior players, sees his contributions as paying back a debt to his sport, and his country, by passing on the learning of his lifetime. It is an obligation that Hadinata says he has felt since the Munich Olympics of 1972, when badminton was first presented as a demonstration sport. He won the men’s doubles that summer, but it was a victory without a medal or an anthem and one, he said, that was quickly “overwhelmed by the tragedy caused by Black September.”

When badminton was introduced two decades later as an official sport at the Barcelona Games, Indonesia won five medals. Susi Susanti, now the director of performance for the national team, became the first player to win gold for Indonesia, in the women’s singles. As the Indonesian flag was raised during the medals ceremony, television cameras focused tightly on her as tears rolled down her face. Her boyfriend Alan Budikusuma, now her husband, won the men’s singles competition a few days later.

Only when they returned home, though, where they were greeted by huge crowds, did they understand how much their victories had meant to the country. They have since taken on the task of molding the country’s next generation of champions.

If anyone knows about the long path to success it is Susanti. In her early teens, she left home to move to Jakarta to live and train at one of the capital’s powerhouse badminton clubs. It is a path still followed by many of the players who reach the national team.

Liliyana Natsir, a four-time world champion who won gold in mixed-doubles at the 2016 Rio Games, was born in Manado, a port on the island of Sulawesi, and came to the Tangkas club in Jakarta at age 12. Though her parents did not play badminton, she said, her mother was a passionate follower of the sport, a woman who binge-watched games late at night while pregnant with Liliyana. “She told me,” Natsir said, “that I must have been watching, too.”

Rudy Hartono, one of the country’s greatest singles players and a dominant force in international badminton in the 1970s, said that Indonesia’s deep love for the sport stemmed from the fact that it has always been a backyard game for Indonesian families. “When you go to small villages,” he said, “you can see in the evening, often from 6 till midnight, people gathering to play badminton.”

But the game’s popular appeal also has also been a “unifying force,” according to Yuppy Suhandinata, the owner of the Tangkas club, because it blends players from different ethnicities, different religions and different backgrounds. While Indonesia is the largest Muslim nation in the world by population, its badminton players — including many with Chinese heritage — come from all religions.

Before each practice at the Tangkas club, the players are invited to say a prayer according to their religion. It is a tradition that is carried up to the highest levels, even at the training sessions of the national squad.

The origin of the nation’s love for the game is unclear. Badminton’s rules were formalized in England at the end of the 19th century, and spread to Asia — initially in India and Malaysia — through British influence. Indonesia now has more than a million active club players, according to Achmad Budiharto, the secretary general of the country’s national badminton association.

Rudy Hartono argued it was Indonesia’s first victory in the Thomas Cup, the international men’s team competition, in 1958, that helped popularize the game. Hartono, still trim and elegant at the age of 70, said that victory inspired him to pursue a career in badminton; the game, he said, became “my daily breakfast.” He grew up to become a world champion.

That level of success, though, has meant enormous pressure upon each successive generation of Indonesian players. Now that the four-year Olympic cycle is being extended a year, there is a new weight upon them.

Marcus Fernaldi Gideon is a member of the world’s leading doubles team, and he and his partner were widely considered to have been Indonesia’s strongest chance for a gold medal in Tokyo. Now he, and everyone else, must find a way to stay motivated as the pressure continues to build.

”Everyone expects us to win,” he said, “because this is badminton and Indonesia.”

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