Last year, pro players from more than 20 countries descended on South Florida for the 10th annual Miami Pan Am International. This year, the tournament (scheduled from November 11 to 14) is likely to attract even more and better players, since many will already be in nearby Latin America for various fall tournaments, says organizer Philip Ayoung-Chee.
“For athletes from Asia and Europe playing in tournaments in this region, Miami is often the first gateway they go through,” he says.
Spectators of the tournament can expect to see the fastest racket sport in the world. A single shot takes one-sixth of a second, about as long as your eyelid stays down when you blink. It’s virtually nonstop ¬action -- 60-second rests between games are the only permitted breaks -- that turns on a dime. A player might tap a feather-soft drop shot at the net and then sprint 20 feet to hit a 200-mph overhead smash from the backcourt. Over the course of a typical match, a player will run three to four miles. It’s not uncommon to have rallies go 60, 70, or 80 shots, especially in doubles.
“One of the goals is to be very fit so you make your opponent drop,” says NBC ¬Olympic-badminton announcer Steve Kearney.
It’s sport at its purest. Prize money is slim, about $5,000 total, assuming a ¬corporate sponsor comes through. That’s about as much as New York Yankees star third baseman Alex Rodriguez makes in five seconds, if you divide his salary by his game time.
The Miami Pan Am International will be an opportunity for players to improve their rankings and qualify for the world championships in India at the end of the year. For spectators, the matches are free to watch, and you can get close enough to practically return shots yourself. “You wouldn’t get that situation in Europe and Asia, where they play in big arenas,” Ayoung-Chee says.
Badminton in its modern form was first played in India and called poona. The British adopted it in the nineteenth century and later established the International Badminton Federation (IBF). In recent years, the sport’s center has shifted back to Asia, where its popularity has created rock-star-like status for top players like China’s Lin Dan and has filled arenas with rabid fans.
Since it made its debut as an official Olympic sport at the 1992 Barcelona Summer Games, badminton has consistently been among the Olympic events that are fastest to sell out of spectator tickets, according to Kearney. Perhaps that’s unsurprising when you consider that the IBF, now headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, has 14 million members.
Organized competitive badminton first came to South Florida in the 1950s, according to Dave Zarco, a tireless fan and promoter for Miami badminton. It all started, he explains, with a man named Easter Smith. After founding the Greater Miami Badminton Association, Smith organized games at area high schools and for decades always played -- in white pants and long sleeves. The late Bill Graham, brother of former U.S. Senator Bob Graham and of the late Phil Graham, who’d been publisher of the Washington Post, was also a fan. He used his considerable influence and resources to get badminton into Miami schools, build the courts at Shula’s, and support local badminton organizations. Miami’s status as gateway to the Caribbean, where just about every island nation has a national badminton team, has helped to replenish the supply of fresh talent over the years.
Zarco never misses an opportunity to talk about his beloved sport in clinics held for high school kids or in casual conversation. “I love badminton because it’s such a fast, physically and mentally demanding sport,” he says. “It combines power with grace, speed, and deception.” Zarco has taught the art of the shuttlecock at several of the 19 Miami-Dade high schools that field badminton teams. He drills young players on footwork and timing to prepare them for their 11-match season, which runs from early February through late April.
The sport attracts serious-minded student athletes, according to the Miami-Dade County public school’s Greater Miami Athletic Conference’s instructional supervisor, Cheryl Golden. “One year, I decided I was going to move the tournament to May,” Golden recalls with a laugh. “And kids called me saying they wouldn’t go because they had [Advanced Placement] testing.” That shouldn’t be much of a surprise to those familiar with badminton’s chesslike aspects. “You have to be able to size up your opponent,” Golden says. “You have to think ahead to the next move.” Betty Williams, a former badminton coach at Miami Palmetto Senior High School, agrees. “It’s exciting to watch, to see the different moves and strategies and shots,” she says.
To those who see only the cerebral side of badminton and doubt its athletic rigors, Zarco offers a caution. “Those who have never played it will find it easier to learn than tennis, but they’ll get more of a workout than with tennis, racquetball, or even basketball.” The 57-year-old adds, “Don’t think so? Come out and prove me wrong.”