Editorial – Not in my barbecue!

Olympic season is upon us, mainstream sportswriters are writing about badminton again and in North America, that means the backyard barbecue meme is back! By Don Hearn.  Photos: Badmintonphoto Seen […]

Olympic season is upon us, mainstream sportswriters are writing about badminton again and in North America, that means the backyard barbecue meme is back!

By Don Hearn.  Photos: Badmintonphoto

Seen as backyard fun by many Americans, the sport is serious business for millions in Asia and parts of Europe, where throngs of people pack stadiums to watch players who are household names.

The preceding excerpt is from an Associated Press story filed recently from Seoul, of all places.  One might well ask how American perception of a sport is relevant in an article written for a global wire service from an international badminton powerhouse, but if you read about the sport in the mainstream media in North America you will already be familiar with the pattern.

This backyard/barbecue(/beer) reference is like a compulsion for journalists there.  Just go to a news search engine and type in ‘badminton backyard’ and you will be treated to a collection of them: possibly at least one for every time a journalist is asked for his/her first badminton piece.

Can you imagine if all golf articles started like this?

Now many of us have memories of going to the mini-golf course as a child and swinging the mini-putters to weave the ball around ramps, windmills, cartoon characters, you name it.  Well, the golfers in Rio will be playing a very different game from that.  Some of them swing clubs weighing over 300 grams and walk upwards of 8 kilometres in just four hours.  Their equipment weighs so much they have to pay a second person just to carry it.  In some countries, there are entire television stations devoted to this one game and newspaper sports pages run stories about it nearly every day!  In the United States, they have a shirt style and an umbrella named after golf and the game has even become the subject of Hollywood movies!

Why is it so difficult for journalists to get their heads around?  You can shoot all the hoops you want over the garage, and have no trouble accepting the notion that NBA basketball games are not played on driveways.  You can watch a toddler stumbling in skates on a frozen pond or Times Square and still know that NHL hockey uses arenas and Zambonis.

So why should it be such a shocker that there exists a fast-paced, professional sport that bears no resemblance to a kids’ game?

Now, obviously some head-scratching is perfectly understandable.  Take Frisbee or Hacky Sack.  Sure, anyone can see how much better you get with a lot of practice, but you still might do a double take the first time you hear of a world championship for a pastime that began as a toy.  And as for the second syllable of the dubious neologism eSports, how can anyone take that seriously?

But badminton didn’t start with the backyard badminton sets that have so captured the imagination of North American sportswriters, any more than baseball was spawned by the company that produced the first jumbo toy plastic bats.  The dates from the same time period as the modern Olympiad and the Serie A football league.

At some point, if you’re writing about sports, you just have to deal with the fact that some exist outside your experience.  If you yourself grow up playing ping-pong only in a basement rec-room, never moving enough to break a sweat, that in no way precludes the world’s top table tennis players from becoming a hundred times better.  One look at their lightning-fast reflexes and sinewy physiques should be all the evidence you need.

Dumbing it down, for the audience or….?

Sadly, the mainstream media just doesn’t seem to have any filter when it comes to badminton.  All the ignorance just comes gushing out.  At the extreme, of course, you have Mary Carillo’s near-nervous breakdown narrating a backyard badminton experience while anchoring between Olympic badminton matches.  Carillo, an ex-tennis player, would no doubt find it unthinkable for a sportscaster at Wimbledon to mention their 12-year-old son taking a wild swing and pounding their last Slazenger over the fence and into the nearby pond.

In a recent skit, Tonight Show writers refused to let knowing nothing about badminton stop them from attempting to parody it.  They dressed up 7 unathletic men in Bjorn Borg-era tennis wear and had them do an awkward dance, pronouncing “bammi’n” with 3 consonants, and even bizarrely declaring themselves to be all “over 30”.  By the way, while many famous Rio medal contenders in a variety of sports are over 30, we can wish a Happy Birthday to Eva Lee (pictured bottom), who today became only the second of the real USA team’s 7 players (pictured) to turn 30!

Beyond such egregious examples, you still get these nagging backyard preambles, even in features that extol the dedication and athleticism of players like Howard Shu.  Granted, this and many articles like it over the years seem like genuine attempts to introduce the sport to an audience assumed to be ignorant.

But surely there is some other way to do this without repeating this absurd stereotype ad nauseum.  And who says Americans see it that way anyway?  What if these pieces are trying to bridge a gap that isn’t there?

The U.S. and Canada both had All England champions long before most of these journalists had a backyard.  A badminton official quoted in this article on Michelle Li (pictured) estimates that in her area, 9 of every 10 Asian-Canadian households has a badminton enthusiast.

It’s never been just a backyard sport on that continent either.  There have always been plenty of Canadians and Americans who clued into the lunacy of throwing a 5-gram shuttlecock on the mercy of even a calm summer breeze.  In fact, just who are these people who never figured out that an indoor gymnasium is the only place badminton can be played properly?

Are the Games all sports?

Of course, in some cases, as with Chicago reporters Rick Morrissey and John Kass four years ago, and presumably with the Tonight Show writers, we see a real disdain for what some North Americans feel don’t mesh with the Olympic faster, higher, stronger ideal.

Okay, fine.  You want to eliminate ‘games’ from among the Games’ sports?  Go ahead.  Obviously, the golfers, shooters, and archers who win gold in Rio will exhibit remarkable skill, but chances are they will likely sweat about as much as they would by shopping in equivalent conditions.

Neither badminton nor ping pong will come close to failing the Shopping Perspiration Test.  Some of the other Olympic events would fall short of the exertion levels of ballet dancers and construction workers but exertion should not be the sole criteria and no one is going to argue for pas-de-deux or barn-raising to be demonstration events in Tokyo 2020.

Conclusion

For those journalists who can’t control their compulsion to insert ‘backyard’ into every badminton article, there is still hope.  A little practice, some tournament coverage experience, or maybe even a few NBC broadcasts of Olympic badminton finals could obviate the need for medication or group counselling.

For those who insist that badminton doesn’t belong in Rio, sure, they could try getting on court with some Olympians as two more open-minded journalists Robbie Buck and Andrew Moore did.  Or check out world class footballer Neymar Jr. trying his hand at badminton.  Some of the haters see their twitter feeds and comment sections fill up with badminton fans issuing angry threats of on-court humiliation or even maliciously aimed shuttlecocks, but this is certainly going too far.

Most likely, many will keep preaching their own ignorance to a converted readership, secure in the belief that the American media machine has taught them well about which sports are superior.

Most of us will blissfully ignore them, in kind, while we check out fleet-footed Nguyen Tien Minh (pictured above) against defending champion Lin Dan next Sunday, or other top-notch contests in Rio and beyond.

Badminton.  Seen as a fast-paced, high-intensity athletic endeavour by…everyone who matters.

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Don Hearn

About Don Hearn

Don Hearn is an Editor and Correspondent who hails from a badminton-loving town in rural Canada. He joined the Badzine team in 2006 to provide coverage of the Korean badminton scene and is committed to helping Badzine to promote badminton to the place it deserves as a global sport. Contact him at: don @ badzine.net