Badminton second to soccer in participation worldwide
Badminton at the Olympics is not going to resemble anything like what you play in your back yard. There are players who can smash the bird at 200 mph.
What people will be able to identify with is tennis because there is a court and a net. Yet, when you see players making a vertical leap in the back court -- 3 to 4 feet in the air -- for a smash, you'll see the sport also is reminiscent of volleyball.
The average rally in badminton is over 10 hits, compared to tennis, which is usually just over three. So badminton, is really fast and continuous.
It's not played as much in the United States, partially because there are so many other athletic options and most people grow up playing what they watch on TV. Yet, badminton is the second most popular participatory sport in the world, just behind soccer, and is considered the fastest racket sport. More than 1.1 billion people watched badminton's Olympic debut in 1996, making it the most watched sport at those Games. It's also the only Olympic sport that features women and men playing against each other on the same court at the same time, unlike tennis.
There are only two U.S. players, Howard Bach and Kevin Han, who are underdogs going in. The greatest advancement in badminton has come from China, where both the men and women are dominant, and Korea. Denmark, Malaysia and Indonesia are all strong in the sport, too. Canada is actually sending seven players, including Charmaine Reid. Her uncle Tom Reid used to play for the Minnesota North Stars in the NHL and is an announcer for the Minnesota Wild. She'll be competing in both singles and doubles, which is unusual because of the physical demand.
Physical demand? How tough could it be?
An average match lasts approximately 1 hour, 15 minutes, while an average tennis match can last up to three hours. In 1985, a comparison was created between the 1985 Wimbledon title match vs. the 1985 badminton world championship match. The average distance traveled by a badminton player in a singles game is 3.7 miles and the average distance traveled by a tennis player is 1.8 miles. So in half the time, badminton players travel twice the distance than tennis players. Stamina is important in tennis, so you can see why few athletes in badminton play both singles and doubles. (For those of you wondering, the four-set tennis match lasted 3 hours, 45 minutes, while the three-game badminton match finished in 1 hour, 16 minutes.)
Something to watch out for at the Olympics is the air conditioning -- if it affects the flight of the shuttle at all, they'll turn the air conditioning off. They frequently play in 100-degree heat. That's why they don't play outdoors because of the affect a breeze could have on the shuttlecock. But it could be sweltering during play in Athens.
ESPN analyst Bill Clement is a member of NBC's 2004 Olympics broadcast team.
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