Good Badminton

My ass is burning.

I'm putting on an awesome display of ineptitude, running back and forth, flailing my racket at the birdie or bird or shuttlecock or whatever it is. My 53-year-old opponent, Dave Zarco, has a slight paunch and wears spectacles. He seems quite relaxed, returning every drop shot, drive, and lame excuse for a slam I send his way. Meanwhile my 30-year-old body has diverted all of its functions to sweat production, and the constant lunging motion involved with getting to Zarco's well-placed shots is wreaking havoc on my gluteal muscles.

Zarco is one of the organizers of the seventh annual Southern Pan Am International Badminton Tournament, which was held at Don Shula's Athletic Club in Miami Lakes last Thursday. He revels in revealing the game to the uninitiated. He especially likes beating the piss out of anyone foolhardy enough to call badminton a "puss game."

Call it what you want, but it's one of the fastest, most athletic, and most popular sports — seriously — in the world. In the United States, Miami and Los Angeles are the only two cities to host international play every year. Along with L.A., Chicago, and a handful of Midwestern metropolises, Miami is one of the few American cities to field high school varsity badminton teams; there are sixteen of them this year.

Coincidentally players from several of those teams battled it out for the county finals at G. Holmes Braddock Senior High School just two days before the Pan Am. The overall champion, Coral Gables Senior High School, won't be eligible for a state title, however, seeing as no other county in Florida has high school badminton. In fact Miami-Dade is the only county with high school badminton in the southeastern United States.

The game has its origins in similar sports that were played in ancient Greece, India, and China. The modern version began as poona in India and, along with chutney and curry, was adopted in the 1860s by British army officers stationed on the subcontinent. A well-attended game played on the grounds of Badminton estate in Gloucestershire, England, launched the sport in the Anglo world and gave it the moniker it bears today.

The International Badminton Federation, headquartered in Gloucestershire since 1934, recently moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where rabid fans subscribe to daily online match updates and badminton news. When the 14-million member IBF holds an "Extra Ordinary General Meeting" or just an ordinary meeting — the most recent was in Beijing last May — more than 100 delegates show up from all over the world.

Although Asia is where it's at in the world of shuttlecocks, Denmark still trains some of the best players, and Latin America has made strides in recent years. Brazil is considered one of the sport's sleeping giants, and famed coaches such as Adrián "El Profesor" Gómez hail from Central America. Badminton became an official Olympic sport at Barcelona in 1992 and was televised for the first time at Athens in 2004. ESPN 2, bastion of billiards and bowling, occasionally broadcasts matches.

The sport made landfall in South Florida when a gentleman named Easter Smith founded the Greater Miami Badminton Association in the 1940s. Over the years, people such as Bill Graham — brother of former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and the late Phil Graham, publisher of the Washington Post — fell in love with the sport and pushed for its inclusion in schools. Bill Graham, in attendance at the Pan Am, drummed up support for construction of the badminton courts at Shula's years ago and has helped keep area badminton organizations solvent.

These days Dave Zarco is the sport's local frontman. If you think of pocket protectors and Buddy Holly-style glasses when you hear the word badminton, Zarco wants to re-educate you. A Philippino-American, or "flip" as he calls himself, with salt-and-pepper hair and a gray goatee, Zarco is a walking billboard for the sport, spewing facts and stats along with a steady stream of opinions, observations, and profanities. A second-string cornerback at Palmetto High School when he discovered badminton, Zarco was sold on the game almost instantly.

A film and video producer as well as USA Badminton's regional director for the South, Zarco once examined a tournament match frame by frame. A single shot from one player's racket to the other's took up only five frames, the span of one-sixth of a second — about as long as your eyelid stays down when you blink. "I don't care how much it slows down; one-sixth of a second is fucking fast," he says. Fifteen years after Zarco filmed that match, tournament play has become faster and more athletic, with leaping smash shots the norm in the men's game.

All of this bodes ill for me. It isn't long before Zarco has me running ragged in our pick-up game. He had intimated he would go easy, saying he reserves his power game for those foolish enough to challenge badminton's place in the pantheon of sport. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, I had made no such claim. I was simply curious, puzzled by this sport, wondering why its professional hordes would touch down once a year in Miami.

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Rob Jordan
Contact: Rob Jordan