“The Central Line is down,” says Rebecca at the Cartan desk. She suggests an alternate route using a combo of the underground and the DSL, which goes overground, to get to Badminton. We set off early and arrive just in time to walk through the first serious rain we’ve encountered.
Our seats are on opposite sides of the arena, so we go to ticket resolution to see if they can be changed. This is a medal round so it may be difficult. But, no worries. Crazy seat assignments have been happening a lot and after confirming that both tickets were bought at the same time, they give us two seats together in the fourth row. These are the types of empty seats you saw on TV early in Games. The seats were given to corporate sponsors, officials of national sports federations, etc. but went unused. Now unwanted tickets are being turned-in to sell or to use to solve problems like ours.
Obstacles surmounted. We’re ready to watch the semi-finals of men’s singles and the gold medal mixed-doubles match. It’s a capacity crowd. There are arguments over seats; the two well-dressed Chinese in front of us refuse to move. Badminton is a big time sport in Asia and we soon see why.
The scoreboard shows the first semi-final will be CW Lee from Malaysia versus L Chen from China, but they are introduced as Chong Wei Lee and Chen Long. Which are the first and which the last names? Who knows? Well, the Malaysians and Chinese who are packing the place and cheering their heads off probably know. The rest of us just yell, “Go Malaysia,” or “Go China.” The Malaysians win the cheering contest; they’re all wearing yellow shirts, fill whole sections, have a man who passes out flags and leads cheers. A large sign proclaims that this is Malaysia’s first chance to win a Gold.
A young couple with a dumpling of an English baby, who doesn’t like the noise, sit next to us. English couples seem to be strapping on their Baby Bjorns and toting their babies to the Games; I’ve seen them at every event. “Is it quiet here?” the Mum asks. “Not too bad,” I lie and ask how old the baby is. “Three months,” she says. “I wasn’t pregnant yet when I got these tickets.” If this were a cartoon, a light bulb would have appeared over my head. That’s what happened to all those couples here with young babies.
Lee from Malaysia jumps out to a 7-0 lead in the first match. Chen from China scores 2 but Lee breaks his serve with a smash that hits Chen in the chest. Lee is short with so little body fat that his face looks like a skull; but when he jumps and slams a smash, the shuttle cox moves so fast that it seems to have gotten to the floor at Chen’s feet by magic. His arm looks like a snake striking when he reaches out to return Chen’s spikes just before they hit the floor. It’s 10-2 before Chen gets a spike past Lee. With the serve, Chen tries to take control of the game and moves Lee around the floor with pitty-pat shots that just drop over the net, followed by what my badminton counselor at Camp Robin Hood called high overhead carries and spikes to the opposite court. Lee relies on power and reflexes to win the set 21-13.
In the second set, Chen makes it 6-6. He is much more in control of the game and spiking well. Lee has a good eye for the out of bounds line though; he’s willing to watch the shuttle cox drop just outside of the line. With his lightening quick reflexes he can afford to gamble, he watches some drop past his knees before his arm flashes out to hit a return. There are incredible volleys that leave the crowd open-mouthed. On the big screen we can see the sweat drop from Lee’s chin. Speed, power and a good eye for the out of bounds prevail over Chen strategic play as Lee wins the set 21-14. Every Malaysian flag in arena is waving as Lee drops to his knees and kisses the floor. He rises, throws kisses to the crowd and marches out, turning just before he exits to raise his fist and claim his cheers as the first Malaysian with a chance to win Gold.
It’s China again in the second semifinal match. The crowd goes wild when their star, Lin Dan, is introduced. He’s a little scary looking with an evil looking dagger tattoo on his right arm and a face that could have gotten him a part as the villain in a Jackie Chan movie. Lee Hyun Il from South Korea doesn’t have the fan base of any of other three.
The tempo of the set begins differently than the first match. There are lots of pushes, drives and overhead carries. Lin Dan dominates the set from the outset and wins 21-12 in only 18 minutes. In set 2, the South Korean keeps things close at first, but at 12-9 Lin Dan, who can score at will, pulls ahead to win 21-10.
In the Mixed Doubles Gold Medal match, it’s Zhang N and Zhao Y from China in yellow against Xu C and Ma J of China in red. “Go China,” someone yells, but mostly we cheer for Yellow China or Red China.
I’ve never seen mixed doubles before. I didn’t think it would be exactly a gentle sport suited to Victorian afternoons, but I was totally unprepared for what was to come.
Yellow China serves; Red returns, Zhang ducks as Zhao zings a spike past him from the back court. It’s 3-3 in seconds. The speed is incredible. “The shuttle cox goes 200 miles per hour on spikes,” says the Englishman next to me who plays on his town’s team.
The teams line up for serves one behind the other; the men’s rackets quiver. “They’re keeping their wrists flexible so they will be ready to return the serve move quickly. It’s all in the wrists in badminton,” explains my new badminton best friend.
In the first set, Yellow China dominates and wins 21-11. In set 2, Yellow jumps to an 8-1 lead, but the relentless swang of the Red woman’s racket on spike after spike brings the Red to 16-12. The Yellow woman asks for a time-out to tie her shoe. Then a questionable line call makes it 17-13. The Red woman is carrying her team as Red scores 4 points in a row. The Yellow woman asks for a time-out to put on a knee brace. The momentum of the Red team is broken and the Yellow win the second set 21-17.
Zhang throws his shoes into the crowd as Yellow takes a victory loop.