Club Sports Report: Birdies Make a Comeback

Quinn Hull, Sports Editor

This is a badminton point, Oberlin-style:

Stillness on both sides of the net is followed by a banked, low-arcing serve, a return volley and then an anxious rally of swinging racquets and a flying birdie, all lasting for less than 30 seconds.

Finally, an inevitable miss ends it, followed by friendly laughs and subdued banter.

“He’s trying to hustle me,” senior David Cogswell projected to himself, just audibly enough for the ears of the audience (that is, all three of us). And then they’re off again, two sides doing battle over another point.

This is an image from the scene on Saturday, when the Oberlin Badminton Club played its first match of the semester against a rag-tag bunch from Baldwin-Wallace College. No one really knows who ended up winning — the doubles and singles games were too many to count, the skill sets of the participants too varied, and in the end, it wasn’t really worth keeping a tally of the overall score.

But man, did you see how hard they could hit that birdie?

“The pros hit it, some say, as fast as 200 miles per hour,” senior Anrey Wang tells me. He then clarified, “It’s technically called a shuttlecock, or a shuttle.”

Wang, a neuroscience major, is patriarch and club captain of Oberlin Badminton. He discovered the sport only four years ago, during the summer before his first year of college, when a visit to China revealed badminton in all its shimmering ubiquity.

Turns out, badminton has been an Olympic sport since 1992, and the Chinese have been dominant, winning 13 more medals than any other country.

“I absolutely loved it,” he reflected. “In China, it’s probably the second-most popular sport to soccer. It’s everywhere. Badminton is crazy.”

At the highest level, the sport requires an unmatched combination of finesse, coordination, reaction time and, particularly, endurance.

“For the top guys,” Wang said, “what makes you a good player is whether or not you can hit the birdie for 10 minutes all over the court.”

This side of the Pacific, however, points in badminton don’t quite have players running around the court for a sixth of an hour. The USA has never won an Olympic medal in the sport — one of just four in which the nation has gone ‘O-fer.’ And while Oberlin, Ohio might not turn out to be the Bethlehem of some great American badminton savior, it’s more of a hot-bed for the sport than you might think.

Three years ago, during Wang’s sophomore year, the Badminton Club kicked off its inaugural season, under the tutelage of captain Dan Butler, OC ’11. Wang said the initial group wasn’t very large — “it had a very slow start” — and that the club didn’t have any formal games during those first few years. But it grew — if slowly.

Following the graduation of Butler last spring, a leadership void opened. Wang hesitantly stepped into it.

“I decided to take up the helm,” Wang said, though he hadn’t planned to. “I just didn’t want to see it die.”

And under Wang’s direction, the club has had a relative explosion in popularity. Each and every Saturday afternoon from 2–4 p.m., a consistently hustling and bustling bunch of badminton-ers assembles in West Gym. The official membership is just somewhere between 20 to 30 — that’s a good number of Obies each weekend whacking the shuttlecock back and forth.

Wang predicts that number will increase by even more next year, when current first-year and future captain Elizabeth Dobbins — part of a new wave of Oberlin students that who played badminton in high school — takes the helm.

“Badminton is a burgeoning sport,” Wang said. “When we started out last year, we had upwards of 50 to 60 people coming out. There’s that much interest on campus.”

And apparently, there’s interest on other campuses too. The Baldwin-Wallace volleyers decided to trek to Oberlin last weekend as reparation for an Oberlin visit to Berea last semester, bringing with them quite a menagerie of players — a lot of students, and even a few older folks.

One of these elder statesmen at the matches, a man wearing a single black glove on his hitting hand, was completely dominating most of his younger competitors. And who was this OG (original gangster)? None other than the soon-to-be-retired President of Baldwin Wallace College, Dick Durst.

“I’m more of a racquetball player,” he said. Yet he looked still pretty deft with the shuttlecock. Wang clarified that Durst was just being coy.

“It turns out that [Baldwin-Wallace’s] president is an avid badminton player and he sometimes goes to their club things. So when we invited them here he wanted to come along.”

So where was our institution’s president when we needed him?

“Well, I don’t know if Marvin plays badminton,” Wang elucidated. “But, I mean, we’d definitely love to have him in.”