Who The Hell Is 'Minton' And Why's He/She So Bad?

Nonfiction. Basically very late sports journalism. About Badminton. Stay with me.

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.’

- David Foster Wallace, Both Flesh and Not

It’s a simple game. There’s a net, lines, long-stemmed racquets, and a little feathered projectile called a shuttlecock: an objectively funny word that is almost always abbreviated. The ostensible purpose of a game of badminton is to land the shuttle within the lines on your opponent’s side of the net, to do this twenty-one times, to be the first to get to twenty-one in two seperate sets.

By the above accurate but sexless information, the game of badminton might seem pretty dull. Read a synopsis of any sport’s ‘ostensible purpose’ and it too will be transformed into a dumb, arbitrary waste of everyone’s time. Football, the world game, becomes eleven people collaborating to kick a sphere between a rectangle. Cricket is just a long day in the sun. Field hockey is hitting a ball with a stick under duress and ice hockey is field hockey but slippery. Ultimate frisbee? Getthefuckoutofhere. And the pole vault is… well, insane — it’s like complicated parkour with a very big bendy straw. The point is not to judge the sport by its simplicity or ostensible purpose or the name of its feathered projectile, because elite badminton is anything but dull.

Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei are playing in the men’s badminton singles gold medal match at the 2012 Olympic Games. It’s the thirtieth time they’ve met in their careers. It’s also the second consecutive time they’ve played in the gold medal match of an Olympic Games, which is unprecedented.

Lin Dan, the reigning Olympic champion, whose face is on billboards back home in China, wears red. Lee Chong Wei is Malaysia’s great hope for a first ever gold medal, and he wears yellow. Both players dance sharply around the court, their footwork similar to that of a fencer. Rallies in this first game to twenty-one are long and coy. The Malaysian Lee pulls ahead, pumping his fist earnestly at every point he wins. Lin Dan remains aloof.

A very fast rally at 12-9 is the first real glimpse of good badminton. Lee flips a backhand deep into Lin Dan’s side of the court, who turns immediately, takes two hard, powerful steps, and whips the shuttle over his shoulder. Lin has to swing almost blind to do this, stretch and snap his body in a way that seems if not impossible then at least pretty sore, and immediately face up for the next shot. Then they have a little back-and-forth at the net. Then a lob from Lee that Lin is able to settle under, leap up to meet, and decisively smack down. It all looks unnaturally fast, as if the video has been sped up.

Some points later, Lin Dan hits the shuttle millimetres beyond the back line, giving the first game to Lee Wei 21-15. It isn’t the first time Lin has done this; he hasn’t adjusted well to the drift. A slight breeze in Wembley Arena, probably from an air conditioning vent, is changing the nature of the shuttle’s flight, slightly blowing it out the back of one end of the court.

It’s a very strange thing they’re playing with.

A shuttlecock moves faster through space than any other object in all of sports. The fastest ever shot will be clocked at 417km/h. That’s almost 200km/h faster than the fastest ever tennis serve, outpacing (by a lot) everything from cricket balls to formula one race cars to diving peregrine falcons. 417km/h is pretty much as fast as the Maglev train. Competition shuttlecocks are made of sixteen actual feathers taken from actual ducks or geese. Only four of the very best feathers are taken from each bird, and only ever from the same wing to ensure a consistent flight pattern.

In serious badminton, the shuttlecock is regularly smashed at speeds of over 300 km/h. But the way the shuttle is designed — like with actual bird feathers, with a cork base, with a maximum total weight of 5.5 grams — means that every now and then it just hangs in the air. One moment it’s flying at bullet train velocities and the next it appears to float, indifferently. It yins and yangs between limp, dipping curves and zip-lining through hyperspace.

And it is very susceptible to slight drifts.

They swap sides for the second set, which has a noticeably different energy from the first. Rallies are more urgent. At 6-5, Lee hits a shuttle that was directly above his head, moving so fast that he couldn’t have seen or thought about it at all. It was pure, unconscious reflex — and boy was it cool. Simple muscle memory looks almost psychic at these speeds. Maybe it is.

This is Lin Dan’s set. Lee Chong Wei struggles with the drift and hands Lin a lot of easy points, but the Chinese megastar’s face is on billboards for a reason. His raw athletic zeal shines through, seemingly kicked into gear by losing that rally at 6-5. He launches his body all over the court, diving at full extension many times to keep the rally alive. The skill of this is astonishing. His athleticism is clear. But the madness of it all is that he wins the set so convincingly (21-10) against his only mortal contemporary.

Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei are two of the greatest badminton players of all time. This is statistically provable in a range of ways: Lin is the only player to have won all major badminton titles in the world, Lee is perennially ranked number one in the world and, in 2012, they are the only two men's singles badminton players to win medals at two Olympic Games. Though Lee is often ranked higher, Lin Dan is his kryptonite. The Malaysian has lost twenty-one of their thirty meetings, often starting strong then committing a number of unforced errors at the death—and he’s never beaten Lin in the final of a major tournament. But together, they are some distance above any other active player. Both have said that they would never have become as good as they are without the other.

And they are good. Truly good. Actually, they’re freaks. Bounding about like they’ve got springs in their shoes, hitting a tiny, delicate object at unbelievable speeds. Like other great athletes, they seem to be somehow exempt, at least in part, from the usual laws of physics. Like how Federer is always calm or Lethal Leisel Jones just motors on the last 50. Like how Michael Jordan and Simone Biles hang in the air for longer than they ought to, or how Messi keeps the ball on his foot with some invisible rope that science can’t fully explain. It’s the same for Lin and Lee. These two men are inexplicable at badminton.

The third set ebbs and flows in a way that the rest of the match has not. You can see in every rally, in every shot, each man trying to wrestle back the momentum of the game. Lee Chong Wei went into the set’s interval down 11-9, and after the required mid-set swapping of ends now finds himself again affected by the drift. This is a problem.

And also there’s this thing that happens more and more often as the tension and tempo increases: the curious flight of the shuttle meets the near-supernatural athleticism of the players. The shuttlecock hangs and the men leap up, float, contort and coil their bodies, float some more, raise their racket, and then unleash it all in a single, fluid, powerful instant. Gravity turns off for a moment and then thunders back, the shuttle races to the ground and then, somehow, it is saved. The smash is returned with a flick of the wrist and the shuttle lives to fly again. And again. And another smash. And another save. And again. And again.

Beauty is not the goal of badminton. It’s a kind of byproduct of a simple game’s simple purpose: each of these men has committed their waking lives to the art of landing the shuttlecock within the lines on their opponent’s side of the net. Each is brilliant at it, as good as they can physically be. Each is creative and preternaturally fast and just very, very good. And plus also the game they’re playing is really weird, hundreds of years old, made up of a series of arbitrary rules. These two men have given their whole selves, their entire lives and every fibre of their physical body, to be exceptional at a dumb sport. What’s weird is that we can maybe understand why they would do this. And even if it is a sort of accident, they’re beautiful.

Somehow it has become 18-18 in the final set of the men’s singles gold medal match of the 2012 London Olympic games. Lee Chong Wei pops the shuttle over the net and Lin Dan mishits it. 19-18. After a lively rally, Lee leaves a shuttle he believes has gone too far. But it lands in. By fractions of inches. That goddamn drift again. 19-19. In the next point Lin Dan lands three explosive smashes that no one but his current opponent could keep alive, before he finally, subtly, dinks one over the net. 19-20. Match point Lin Dan. Gold medal point Lin Dan.

Then there are forty-three shots back and forth, which is quite an agonising number of shots. The human heart cannot endure forty-three consecutive high stakes hits of a badminton shuttlecock without beating a little faster, and a little harder. The shuttle dips low on Lee Chong Wei’s side of the net and so he flicks it, for the forty-fourth shot, higher than he had so far in the rally. The five gram, cork-based projectile, the one made out of real bird feathers, is carried imperceptibly further by an almost imperceptible drift. It lands only millimetres beyond the thick white line, and Lin Dan wins gold again.

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