What is the Secret Behind Indonesia’s Love of Badminton?

The Olympics closing ceremony was just a few weeks ago and we have to wait for another 3 years until Paris 2024. After a full year of no major sporting events, the Olympics are here to cure us of the lack of sports content. This year there are so many stories surrounding the mega sporting event, from the Philippines winning its first Gold Medal, Gianmarco Tamberi and Mutaz Barshim sharing an Olympic gold in men’s high jump, to Indonesia winning their first gold in badminton women’s doubles.

The reaction around Greysia Polii and Apriani Rahayu winning gold for women’s doubles was massive; it was Indonesia’s first and only gold in this Tokyo 2020 Olympics. They were dubbed “history makers” hours after their victory — my Instagram timeline was filled with appreciation and congratulatory posts for the athletes over their triumph. Winning the women doubles is a significant achievement for Indonesia in the Olympics — they’re not only completing their gold collection in every single discipline but they’re also the second country to achieve such a feat, with the first one being China.

As an Indonesian, I can argue how accomplished Indonesia is in badminton. Arguably, the first athlete to have a significant achievement in badminton for Indonesia is Rudy Hartono in the 1960s-1970s and he is still known as one of the best badminton players of all time. His achievements were nothing short of impressive, winning the All-England Championship 7 times consecutively in men’s singles and the World Championship once. His victory had really been a turning point for Indonesians as it was the first time Indonesia really dominated a sport in any international competition. Other prominent badminton players during this period include Icuk Sugiarto, Liem Swie King, Christian Hadinata, and many more who had crafted their own path to inspire new generations ahead in badminton. 

The Olympics Barcelona 1992 only intensified Indonesia’s love of badminton. Susi Susanti and Alan Budikusuma both came home with gold medals for women and men singles in the Olympics in 1992. Their victory is a historical one and instantly became an icon and role model for many aspiring badminton players in Indonesia. In the words of Gen Z: they were a cultural reset. There are movies and books that depict their life and their grand achievement in badminton. That is how meaningful winning gold in the Olympics was for Indonesia.

Even now, Indonesia is not short of talented badminton athletes — examples include Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu, who both ranked 6 in the current Badminton World Federation (BWF) in women’s doubles and also won an Olympic Gold Medal this year. Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, the Bronze medalist for men single’s in this year’s Olympics is also ranked 5 in the current BWF men single discipline. Various different names also saturate Indonesia’s badminton accomplishments over the past few years and hopefully are also here to build and inspire a new generation of badminton players. 

But what is the reason behind these accomplishments? From the early ’70s till now, Indonesia has produced some amazing talents and athletes and I pray that it won’t stop anytime soon. But the question remains: what really is Indonesia’s secret concoction to their remarkable badminton history?

According to the New York Times, badminton is part of the Indonesian identity, the rich history of the sport has everything to do with how the Indonesian view the sport and its subsequent achievements. Part of that history is the contribution of the ethnic minority, most notably the Chinese Indonesians or col Chindo.

Being an inclusive sport helped the sport to achieve its full potential and increased the chances of winning in multiple sports events.

The early history of the sport is splattered with contributions from Chinese Indonesians. After the independence in Indonesia, President Soekarno created Indonesian Sports Union (or PORI), which was led by Dick Soedirman, an Indonesian badminton player, and it was a union that was almost exclusively indigenous. He successfully merged a predominantly Chinese badminton organization called PERBAD with the PORI badminton division. Given the circumstances of the anti-Chinese sentiment at the period, it’s very hard to move to do so; nevertheless, it helped to recognize the ethnic Chinese involvement in badminton until this day. 

In the early years of badminton in Indonesia, many of the achievements of badminton were very much related to the involvement of the ethnic Chinese people in it. This includes athletes like Rudy Hartanto and Liem Swie King, who are ethnic Chinese players from Indonesia who’ve won many prestigious international titles in the mid-20th century. During the 1958 Uber Cup, the Indonesian team that won consisted mostly of Chinese Indonesians and only one of them was indigenous. 

Unlike football, badminton’s early achievements were made possible because it was not as closely related to nationalism. Coming from England, the Dutch didn’t have any significant role in badminton achievements, which is why badminton is separated from the nationalist cause at the time. While football is politicized for the nationalist cause against the Dutch as beating them has a significant symbolism to increase morale. Consequently, badminton in Indonesia naturally had a non-discriminatory environment, thus unlocking the potential of many young athletes to play and participate in badminton.

Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia have never really been assimilated into Indonesian culture until very recently, and it was still very minimal. Even in badminton itself, many of the Chinese Indonesian athletes were forced to change their Chinese names to sound more Indonesian. The tensions between the ethnic Chinese and the nationalists in the early 20th century were massive. There were bans and laws that had limited the ethnic Chinese movements in the society and they had never been considered Indonesian at the time. This is why the badminton achievements in the early 1930s and the merging of PERBAD and PORI were very monumental knowing the struggle that had come with the Chinese Indonesian there. 

Furthermore, badminton in Indonesia was already supported by wealthy ethnic Chinese families in its early development. The Hartono and Suhandinata families owned Djarum Kudus and Tangkas respectively and had produced many badminton talents over the past decades. Their participation includes funding and facilitating badminton training centers for the athletes, providing badminton scholarships, and sponsoring local and international badminton competitions. Both families are actively searching and cultivating new talents from all over the nation; their support would ultimately push Indonesia to a badminton world domination in the last few decades.

If it weren’t because of their involvement in the mid 20th century it would be harder for subsequent ethnic Chinese athletes to thrive internationally. Their past achievements are what ease the process for Chinese Indonesian athletes to compete abroad. One of Indonesia’s 1980’s badminton athletes, Ivana Lie, had mentioned how hard it is for her to compete overseas because it took 4 years for the government to issue her own travel identification, in which she had to speak to the president at the time. Lie’s travel identification finally being issued is also perpetrated by the past victories of the athletes that came before her, which then helped badminton athletes in the 1990’s such as Susi Susanti, Tony Gunawan, and Alan Budikusuma to dominate the badminton scene. This ultimately makes the sport become much more inclusive from time to time, leading to a bigger pool of athletes to scout from, thus having a higher chance to win. 

Of course, many Indonesian badminton legends had their own opinion regarding the reason for Indonesia’s achievement in badminton. Christian Hadinata, a retired badminton athlete and currently the technical coach for PB Djarum, claims that the Indonesian unique ability lies in their variety of shots. He then explained that it was something that cannot be taught but rather lies in the athlete’s raw ability. Another athlete, Rudy Hartono believes that Indonesia’s fondness over badminton was due to the fact that this was something that families played in their home, giving it a sense of familiarity in which many seek. 

Yuppy Hadinata, the current owner of the Tangkas club believes that badminton has its own force that helps athletes unite under one sport. It combines many different players from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions, giving it a sense of solidarity and in a way sportsmanship. Even before playing, the Tangkas club players pray and it’s a tradition that is sustained until the training of the national team.

This is not to say that the indigenous athletes of badminton had nothing to do with the galore of badminton achievements in past years. Their participation in the Indonesian badminton victories is a significant one as well; however, we should acknowledge the contribution of the ethnic Chinese is much larger than many might think. 

No one can fathom how successful Indonesians are at badminton and no other sports here came close to overthrow the Indonesian badminton feat. As a country that had never really thrived in any sports internationally, badminton is the odd one out; it stood out amongst the rest. In order to follow the badminton success trend, Indonesia should be able to diversify its athletes and unlock their true potential. It’s the first step for Indonesia to dominate the sports world all while reflecting and applying their motto “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika“, translated to “Unity in Diversity”. 

. . .

Resources: