What Japan Learned from Badminton Powerhouse Indonesia at the Asian Para Games
Taiyou Imai (SU5 [Upper Limb Impairment]/Ranking #3) stood on the fire, facing concentrated fire from his opponent.
It is the quarter-finals of the para-badminton Singles event in the Asian Para Games, and Imai was playing against Oddie Kurnia Dwi Listyanto Putra (Ranking #10), third in line from the host country of Indonesia. Though he was able to win the first game, the second and third games found him hit with a flurry of close-range hairpin net shots*.
Imai under concentrated fire from Putra of Indonesia
Putra, third in line from the host country of Indonesia
The score was 21-16, 17-21, 16-21. From the numbers, it may seem like an intense battle, but the latter half of the match was dominated by Putra. During this time, every push shot from Putra sent Imai rolling onto the floor on his back. When it was finally time for Putra’s match point, Imai was faced with the roar of an audience cheering, “Beat him! Beat him!” in Indonesian, and found himself playing the role of the loser.
Everybody thought Imai, when he showed up at the media mixed zone, would be devastated. And when he finally emerged, he said simply, “I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to win a medal.”
His expression, however, was far from devastated—his cheeks were flushed, and he seemed jubilant, having just played para-badminton in what is considered the “home” of badminton.
“I’d heard that Indonesia was a badminton powerhouse, but the cheering was so loud I couldn’t even hear the sound of the shuttles. No tournament in Japan ever sees this kind of excitement, and I just thought it was nice. It gives me hope to see this much excitement over para-badminton. Badminton is gaining more focus in Japan, and I hope para-badminton can follow the same trajectory.”
A significant issue in Japan is the difficulty in gathering audiences for any para-sport. Imai had seen in this tournament in Indonesia an idealized vision of what Japan could be in the future. He seemed shaken, and so inspired that he looked close to tears.
Imai, considered a potential medal-winner, was eliminated in the quarter-finals
An Experienced Badminton Audience Livens Up the Venue
The para-badminton venue was packed with excitement every day of the tournament. The Jakarta Post, an English-language newspaper in Indonesia, wrote that the Indonesia 2018 Asian Para Games as a whole had been lacking in terms of efforts to draw audiences—with the notable exceptions of para athletics, para swimming, and para-badminton.
For Indonesia, badminton is the only sport where one of their own could be a world champion. Indeed, the top able-bodied badminton players are national heroes. Badminton games are broadcast live on TV on a day-to-day basis, meaning Indonesians as a whole have quite a lot of experience spectating badminton, and know exactly how to cheer the players on.
Local residents that came to watch the finals
For instance, every time an Indonesian player had the opportunity for a great shot, the audience would come together to yell “Yuh! Yuh!” to cheer them on in time with their smash. This audience and their passionate support has led many a losing Indonesian player to miraculous comeback victories, and driven many opponents off-balance and into unexpected losses.
As such, the para-badminton crowds in this tournament were quite experienced. The Istora Gelora Bung Karno, which can seat up to 10,000 people, though not filled to capacity, saw about 80% of its seats filled on many of the days, with an audience passionate in their support of local players. The audience as a whole was excited and responsive, even for the Wheelchair events and others that they were not accustomed to, clapping and cheering every time a player made a perfectly aimed drop shot from the back of the court.
Many fans came to the Istora Gelora Bung Karno from the first day of the para-badminton events
The SU5 Class Buoyed by Local Players
Of particular interest to these Indonesian fans was the SU5 Class Men’s Singles event—this was where the excitement would be.
The #1 ranked player had long been Liek Hou Cheah, who despite being born with a disability, had played in the able-bodied badminton junior national team in Malaysia. At 30 years old, he is an extremely skilled player with underarm and overhead strokes that make it difficult for his opponent to get in a good rhythm.
Cheah’s greatest rival in these games was thought to be Suryo Nugroho of Indonesia, a 23-year old that had been playing in the able-bodied badminton junior national team until he had his left arm amputated below the elbow in a motorcycle accident in 2006. Suryo is a well-rounded player, skilled in both defense and offense.
These two players were projected to battle each other in the finals. Big tournaments, however, are fraught with nerves—you never know when something unexpected will happen.
The winner of the SU5 class was Indonesia’s second in line, Dheva Anrimusthi. 20-year old Dheva, who holds his racket in his disabled right hand, cannot hit very fast shots, but moves extraordinarily quickly around the court. He would run and lunge after shuttles and make the shots, beating Cheah in the semi-finals and Suryo in the finals to win it all.
Dheva (back) and Suryo, commending each other for a good game
Particularly inspiring were the finals. After the match, Dheva and Suryo embraced, commending each other for a good game. This one scene, which showed all the effort the two had gone to get this far, ended up being one of the most dramatic moments in this tournament.
All in all, including this match, Indonesia won six gold medals across the whole tournament. The tournament as a whole had been buoyed by the performances of Indonesian players, as well as an experienced audience that knew the ins and outs of the sport.
Tasks for Japan: Strengthen Players, Draw More Spectators
After his match, Imai had said, “I really wanted a medal, just to draw more people to para-badminton as well.” Indeed, Japan must work to strengthen its para-badminton players in preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, as having high-performing local players is a surefire way to draw more spectators to an event.
Badminton venue filled with spectators—the goal is to recreate this for Tokyo
In the Asian Para Games, however, the best result for Japan was a silver medal won by Ayako Suzuki (SU5) in the Women’s Singles event, alongside six bronze medals. No gold. This, of course, is still progress compared to the three bronze medals in the previous Asian Para Games. There were many instances, however, where Japanese players buckled under the strength of the Chinese team, with Yuma Yamazaki and Ayako Suzuki (WH2 [Wheelchair]/Ranking #1) losing to Chinese players that normally do not compete actively in tournaments.
“The players worked really hard,” said Coach Kim Jeong-Ja of the Japan team, then went on to say, “But the young Chinese players got better faster than we expected. From now on we really have to work on our endurance and do core training to prevent mistakes.”
Said Suzuki, looking back on the tournament, “I really felt the need to work on the lower half of my body. Starting next year, there will be a lot more times where Chinese players compete in these tournaments. I’m going to practice harder than ever.”
While this tournament revealed a number of issues in the Japan national team, it also afforded the players something precious—a chance to come into contact with badminton powerhouse Indonesia, and think to themselves, “This is how para-badminton should be in Japan too.” We expect this experience will bring great change to these Japanese players in the coming years.
* Hairpin net shots: A shot that starts along your own net, and ends along your opponent’s net, with a trajectory that looks like a bobby pin
text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by Haruo Wanibe