August 22, 2000


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Asians limber up to defend badminton reign

Achmad Sukarsono in Jakarta

With their razor sharp reflexes, fancy footwork and lithe torsos, Asians have reigned supreme in badminton at the Olympic Games and in almost every other tournament for that matter.

Wonderboy Taufiq Hidayat in actionBut at next month's Olympic Games in Sydney, the cream of Indonesia, China and South Korea will face stiffer competition, even though they should preserve their dominance.

Since being introduced at the 1992 Barcelona Games, all but one badminton gold has been hung around the neck of an Asian player.

Danish player Poul-Erik Hoyer Larsen broke Asia's streak in the 1996 Atlanta Games when he outstroked Chinese favourite Dong Jiong in the prestigious men's singles.

Larsen's countryman, Peter Gade Christensen, ranked world number one in the men's singles, says the Danes are ready for the challenge at the Sydney Games next month.

"Right now, Sydney is all that we are thinking of," he told Reuters during the Indonesian Open last month.

Players from Denmark, the leading non-Asian badminton nation, even chose to miss the recent Malaysian Open, the last major grand prix before Sydney due to their Olympic preparations.

For some Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, badminton has been the sole path to Olympic glory.

Malaysia broke a 40-year Olympic medal drought in 1996 when badminton players brought home one silver and two bronze from Atlanta.

Although archers gave Indonesia their first medal in 1988, all of their three Olympic golds have come from badminton, a sport played with relish across the world's largest archipelago.

"We want to continue our tradition of getting gold. (Badminton) Gold in Sydney, why not?" said Arie Sudewo, deputy chairman of the Indonesian National Sports Committee.

In the most prestigious badminton event, the men's singles, the struggle will likely raise the roof in Sydney.

No player is a clear favourite, not even Christensen, who has been on top for more than two years.

All the top five players have beaten each other and the threat of a giantkiller lurking in the draw is high.

Malaysian Roslin Hashim, who is ineligible for Sydney because he does not play for the official badminton body in Malaysia, beat Christensen at the July Indonesian Open.

Christensen said only five players, himself included, had the chance to win at Sydney.

"Only five guys can win. But it also does have a lot to do with luck," he said.

He also cited Indonesians Hendrawan and boy wonder Taufik Hidayat, the world number two and three respectively, along with China's world number four Xia Xuanze and the 48th-ranked former world champion Sun Jun, who has had a rough year.

Limited to three contestants, China made a tactical decision to put forward Sun, who has beaten Christensen, and ditch world number 10 Luo Yigang.

Malaysia, sore that their players are not more highly regarded, are also trying to get some respect after encouraging recent performances by its players.

"Malaysians have the standards to compete with the rest of the world," Malaysian single's coach Kwan Yoke Meng said.

The women's singles is more predictable -- when the top Chinese players compete in a tournament, the trophy is usually a foregone conclusion. When they are not there, it usually goes to world number two Camilla Martin from Denmark.

But although constantly dominating women's singles, Chinese female players have failed to reach an Olympic final.

Chinese coach Li Yongbo said he expected two golds from his players, including women's singles, but declined to be brash.

"Though our players are superior in strength, they often crash in important games," he said.

For Sydney, China will field their top three: world number one Gong Zichao, Swiss Open champ Dai Yun and Ye Zhaoying who won the Thai Open, the last event the three competed in this year.

"Even though I have beaten all the Chinese players before, they will always be the worst opponents for me," European champion Martin said after winning the Indonesian Open in July.

In the men's, women's and mixed doubles, one pair seems to be ahead of the pack in each category.

Top world men's pair Candra Wijaya and Tony Gunawan of Indonesia only want gold at Sydney. "Our target is gold, anything less is a failure," said Wijaya.

In the women's doubles, Gu Jun and Ge Fei of China have been virtually unbeatable since winning gold at Atlanta.

South Korea's mixed doubles pair of Kim Dong Moon and Ra Kyung Min are way in front after snatching every tournament they competed in this year.

"There's too much respect for them. People just do not want to play them," said Briton Simon Archer. He and Joanne Goode will be the United Kingdom's only hope in the game their country invented.

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