LONDON (Reuters) - Americans have rarely struck fear into the hearts of Asia’s badminton champions, but the recruitment of Indonesia-born veteran Tony Gunawan has given the U.S. team hope of cracking a first medal at London and the player a second Olympic life.
Gunawan, rated one of the greatest doubles players of all time, became a national hero in his native country when he partnered Candra Wijaya to win gold at the 2000 Sydney Games at the age of 25.
After upsetting the fancied South Korean pair of Lee Dong-soo and Yoo Yong-sung to win the title, the players returned home to thronging parades and official receptions. Each were showered with government cash and offered a small house.
Gunawan’s entry into the U.S. team has not had quite the same fanfare, though it has caused a ripple or two among the country’s small population of badminton enthusiasts.
He will reprise his successful partnership with Howard Bach, the Vietnam-born Californian he teamed up with to win the United States’ first badminton world title.
“I never expected to come back to another Olympics again,” Gunawan, now an impressively fit-looking 37-year-old, told Reuters in an interview on Thursday after training at Wembley Arena.
”I was actually planning to retire in 2009 and then Howard approached me and said, ‘hey, how about we play for fun?’
”And then in 2010, we rose to number 12 in the world, so then USA Badminton talked to us and said ‘why don’t you try one last shot for this Olympics?’
“So here we are.”
Badminton-loving Indonesia rejoiced when the sport was added to the Olympic program at the 1992 Barcelona Games and the sport has yielded all of the country’s six Olympic gold medals.
With cut-throat competition for Olympic spots on the team, Gunawan decided to migrate to the United States after winning a world title in 2001 with Indonesian partner Halim Haryanto Ho.
He pursued a coaching career but dabbled enough in competition to win another world title with Bach four years later.
”I already gave my all to Indonesia, I got the Olympic gold and the world championship and felt it was time to move on, basically for my family and my kids.
”I didn’t really play at all for two years but I started playing with Howard because the 2005 world championships were in the United States.
“Unexpectedly we won. There has never really been any plan (in my sporting career), it’s just been take it as it comes.”
He passed the U.S. citizenship test last year to qualify in time for the Games and arrives in London with low expectations of upsetting the Chinese juggernaut at Wembley Arena.
Despite competing at an age when most former champions sit on the sidelines and look back nostalgically at their golden years, Gunawan still has the hunger to help the three-member U.S. team win a medal.
“I‘m still in one piece and I’ll try to stay this way,” he said with a laugh.
“We’ll try our best. It’s not a great chance, pretty small. But it’s the Olympics and anything can happen. Of course we’re shooting for a medal for U.S. history.”
Badminton’s finest players in Indonesia are feted celebrities, attracting lucrative endorsements from local sponsors and encouraged with big cash prizes from local governments.
The U.S. is a different story, with most players fitting training around day jobs or study. The team’s head coach Ben Lee is a police officer who had to take leave from his beat on the streets of Silicon Valley town Palo Alto to come to London.
“We can’t really compare ourselves to China right now,” Lee told Reuters, striking a deadpan tone.
”But I can tell you having been involved in the sport for so many years, that it’s been growing by leaps and bounds.
“In California there’s over 20 dedicated badminton clubs. Ten years ago, it wasn’t even heard of,” added Lee, who played badminton for the U.S. at the 1992 Games.
Gunawan owns one of the badminton academies with his wife on the outskirts of Los Angeles, while most of the country’s top players, including Rena Wang -- who will compete in the Olympic women’s singles -- live in California.
Lee had four and a half weeks to train his team into a medal-contending force for the July 28-August 5 tournament and feels, with prized recruit Gunawan, the United States could have a player capable of giving the sport a big push in the country.
“Absolutely. Not just for this event, but events all over the United States. Having somebody at that level, it’s just going to make things better all round,” he said.
”He’s working on a lot of the younger kids at the grass-roots levels from beginners all the way to advanced juniors, which is obviously great.
“We need more people like him.”
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