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Rock stars with rackets

In the cradle of the sport, badminton player Howard Bach thinks he has a shot at a medal.

August 08, 2008|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- Howard Bach is going to play badminton in a country that cares about his sport, where he, an American who goes unnoticed even in Orange (despite the presence of a luxurious badminton training center), is recognized and acknowledged.

But here he is competing at his second Olympic Games, with his earring and his gelled, spiky hair, asking for more.

"The Olympic badminton facility is great. It's built just for us, the air-conditioning even comes from the floor so it doesn't affect the atmosphere," Bach said. "I just wish it was bigger."

The Beijing University of Technology Gymnasium seats 7,700. Bach wishes it held 77,000. Or at least 20,000, which was the capacity at the Honda Center, where Bach became the first American to win a world championship in 2005 with partner Tony Gunawan of Indonesia.

That's the kind of attitude Bach will bring to the court Tuesday, when he and his partner, Khan "Bob" Malaythong, play Chris and Roelof Dednam of South Africa in the first round of the men's doubles.

Badminton competition begins Saturday with women's singles. Eva Lee of the U.S. will play Anna Rice of Canada. Also representing the U.S. in the badminton competition will be Raju Rai in men's singles, and Mesinee Mangkalakiri, who will play with Lee in women's doubles.

It is no accident that the backgrounds of all the U.S. players are Asian-flavored. Bach, whose family emigrated from Vietnam, said that whenever he competes in Asia, he feels the crowd's enthusiasm, but more than that he notices the game being played in gyms and yards and on the street.

"You go to China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, all those places, and badminton is so competitive," he said. "It is like soccer or football. Kids want to grow up and be badminton players. In the United States, no, that doesn't happen. You play it at picnics, but the game can be so much more."

One of China's top players, Lin Dan, has a movie star profile. His romance with Xie Xingfang, who is on the Chinese women's team, is well-chronicled, as is Lin's temper. Last April, Lin was reported to have punched his coach after practice, and last January he threatened to hit a Chinese-born Korean coach with his racket.

"I could do all that stuff and no one would know," Bach said.

In fact, Bach and Malaythong filmed a national television commercial for Vitamin Water. The two played anonymous foils to Chicago Bears football star Brian Urlacher and Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.

Bach and Malaythong had to play quivering losers while the Vitamin Water-fueled Urlacher and Ortiz smashed shuttlecocks past the real badminton players. The final moment of the commercial had Ortiz embedding the shuttlecock into Malaythong's leg.

"We got some heat for doing that commercial from other badminton players," Bach said. "They said we were making a mockery of the game. Most of them were from someplace else. We figure any publicity for badminton in the U.S. is good."

Even Don Chew, who built the 73,000-square-foot Orange County Badminton Center and who coaxes and cajoles the best players in the country to train there, said it was "impossible" to consider an American could win an Olympic medal.

And Bach couldn't play in the Olympics with Gunawan, a 2000 Olympic medalist from Indonesia who is not yet eligible to play in the Olympics for the United States. Since badminton became an Olympic sport in 1992, China has won 22 medals. The only non-Asian countries with medals are Denmark (four), Britain (two) and the Netherlands (one).

"The thing is, I know what it takes to win at that level," Bach said. "So, to me, it is not impossible."

Bach and former partner Kevin Han won one round at the 2004 Olympics.

After Gunawan realized he wouldn't be able to get his U.S. citizenship in time to compete with Bach here, Gunawan became a coach for Bach and Malaythong, who is from Laos.

Malaythong is as understated as Bach is enthusiastic. Bach was one of People magazine's hottest bachelors in 2004. Malaythong has to be coaxed to speak about how his sister escaped from Laos first and paved the way for her younger brother.

But Bach and Malaythong are not willing to simply soak up the manic atmosphere that will fill the arena for every badminton match. They feel as if a medal is not out of reach.

"Look, it's no secret that the Chinese are as dominant in badminton as they are in diving, in table tennis," Bach said. "They are heavy favorites in three of the five events and probably a little bit favorites in all five events. But it's realistic for Bob and me to win two matches. If we do that, we're in the semis. You get to the semis and who knows?

"I've been to the top, I have the attitude, and I think I'm giving that attitude to Bob too."

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