The Stealth Championship

Shuttlecock. Why shuttlecock? It was the very first thing that popped into my head when I discovered that the U.S. Adult National Badminton Championships was just a 45 minute drive away from the palatial international headquarters of the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour. It occurred to me that if I were trying to gain some respect and grow the visibility of badminton, I might start to think about another name for the game’s key piece of equipment. Immediately feeling guilty about my close-mindedness however, I vowed to:  (a) educate myself about the genesis of the shuttlecock, and (b) go witness one or more in flight.

Regarding the former, I discovered that the name for what backyard badminton combatants call a “birdie” stems from the title of the original game – Battledore & Shuttlecock. Best estimates are that the game originated around 2000 years ago in ancient Greece, and well, some habits are just hard to kick. Who am I to argue with ancients Greeks? I also learned that badminton is a phenomenon and a lifestyle in countries throughout the Asian Rim, like Indonesia, China, Korea and…Denmark? How’d that one get in there?

Anyway, armed with the power that knowledge brings, I headed down to the O.C. – specifically to the Orange County Badminton Club for the final day of competition at the National Championships. And if I had any doubt that the sport was disproportionately embraced in this country by Asian-Americans, it was immediately dismissed upon walking through the Club’s front door. It was impossible not to notice that I was one of only two or three Caucasian spectators. And as far as I could see, there was only one such competitor.

The atmosphere was casual, to be sure. Admission was free, and there were no banners or visuals of any kind to announce that the best badminton in the country was about to unfold before you. In fact, if I had blindfolded a friend and brought them in, they would have been hard-pressed to tell me the name of the event they were attending. I’m guessing that the flock of airborne shuttlecocks might have tipped them off as to the sport, but otherwise it might as well have been a local club championship. The word “understated” was, well…understated.

The downside to such a comfortable environment however, was a lack of, shall we say “user-friendliness” for fans. This was a do-it-yourself event for spectators, but feeling up to the challenge I started foraging for information. Soon enough I came across a cleverly concealed cache of modest event programs which provided…not much. The programs were generic to the entire multi-day event, done via one advance press run and lacking an insert to provide the details of that particular day. There was an alphabetic list of competitors, but no draw or bracket – and being less than a week removed from March Madness I was still nursing a bad case of Bracket Withdrawal.

I approached the gentleman working the counter and asked where I could find more information that would help me put order to the sea of swinging rackets playing out before me. “No problem!” he said cheerfully. “It’s posted on the front door”. Sure enough, upon exiting and re-entering the facility I discovered the Rosetta Stone of event information. Taped to the inside of the glass entry door and facing outward, among the “Roommate Wanted” and “Lost Pet” postings was a single 8 ½” x 11” sheet of paper displaying the schedule of events – sort of. In actuality it was simply a list of the order in which the championship match would be played for each class of competition. Another clue, Watson!

I re-entered and checked back in with my source, half-expecting to be asked for a secret code of some sort. “So let’s just say I wanted to see these championship matches”, I began tentatively, not wanting to blow my cover. “On which court are they being played?” Overmatched by my cagey line of questioning, my source sang like a canary. “Number 8” he said, again smiling broadly as turned away. Aha! I turned to look at the layout of the venue and immediately realized I had been outsmarted again. None of the courts – all of which were in use by now – bore any identifying numbers. Well played, my wily adversary.

Defeated, I asked a young woman to point out Court #8. Puzzled by my request, she pointed to the far corner of the facility. And there in the distance I saw it, the court that lay the absolute furthest distance from the entrance to the building. It was as if Centre Court at Wimbledon was located at Wembley Stadium. I hired a Sherpa, and a short time later arrived at my destination. Finding a chair I settled in with what must have been a dazed look on my face. “First Badminton Nationals?” asked the man sitting next to me. How could he tell?

To be continued…

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