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London Olympics: Tony Gunawan double-times it out of badminton event

West Covina's Tony Gunawan, 37, a former gold medalist considered his sport's greatest doubles player, and partner Howard Bach crash out without winning a game in three matches.

July 30, 2012|By Kevin Baxter
  • Tony Gunawan reaches for a backhand shot as teammate Howard Bach watches during their match Monday.
Tony Gunawan reaches for a backhand shot as teammate Howard Bach watches… (Gary Ambrose / Los Angeles…)

LONDON — It was a little like watching Willie Mays strike out in his last at-bat or Michael Jordan miss his final two field-goal attempts.

Because Tony Gunawan, the greatest doubles badminton player of all time, didn't so much walk off the court for the final time Monday — he and partner Howard Bach were swept off it. The pair played three matches and six games in three days at the London Olympics and lost them all, stumbling over Japan's Naoki Kawamae and Shoji Sato, 21-15, 21-15, on their way out the door.

"It has been a long time for me. I had a really good run," Gunawan, of West Covina, said with a wan smile afterward. "The result here was not good but my career has been really good."

And it's those good things that will make up the bulk of a legacy Gunawan, an Olympian for two countries, is still writing.

A gold medalist in the Olympics and the world championships for his native Indonesia, Gunawan retired at 26 and emigrated to the U.S., hoping to raise the level of play here as a coach. Three years later he decided it would be easier to teach on the court than on the sidelines so he un-retired, teaming with Bach to give his new homeland its first-ever world championship title.

A green card wasn't enough to get him into the Olympics, though, so last fall Gunawan took to another court, this time to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen so he could compete in London.

"He already has a gold medal. He was doing it for the USA," Dan Cloppas, the secretary general for USA Badminton, said Monday. "He was doing it for his country. And that's a noble thing to do."

But here's where the feel-good story gets a little fuzzy, because five months ago the 37-year-old Gunawan said he wouldn't compete in the Games unless he and Bach, 33, had a reasonable chance at a medal. Eventually Cloppas convinced Gunawan that they had no chance if they didn't show up.

So they did — and wound up winning exactly as many games as they would have had they stayed home. And while Cloppas doesn't consider that a victory, for U.S. Badminton it was a lot better to wave the flag in defeat than it would have been to stay home.

"For the USOC, it was worth the risk," Cloppas said of the U.S. Olympic Committee, which funded a 10-day pre-Olympic training trip to Malaysia for Gunawan and Bach. "That would have been our first [badminton] medal and would really have helped us. So why not take a chance?

"Because it's probably going to be two quads before we have somebody in that position again." ("Quad" refers to the four-year period leading into an Olympic Games.)

On Monday, Gunawan agreed.

"I'm disappointed in our result," he said after announcing his re-retirement. "But I'm kind of glad I'm here."

Bach, of Anaheim, said it's also time for him to give up playing for coaching after three Olympics. But he, too, is glad he gave it one last shot.

"Even if we have a one-percent chance of medaling, that's still better than zero chance," he said. "If I don't go, I'll never know. So at least we know now.

"But there are other things I'm missing out on. My son is walking now. Had his first steps at home that I missed. It's not easy. There are sacrifices."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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