Java is roughly the size of Louisiana, and about as bucolic as
Bourbon Street. In the 1.5 million years since Java man lived
there, the island has expanded to 109 million residents.
Vacuum-packed Java, indeed. The population of Louisiana, by
comparison, is just over four million, and Java's ought to be no
more than 75 million, according to its own government. This
means there is a surplus of 34 million Javanese, each of whom is
driving a Toyota in a different direction in Jakarta this
morning, everyone hurrying hell-bent for the city's single
available parking space.
Into this vehicular hysteria steers R.A.J. Gosal. He is
marveling that the city of Jakarta, on the island of Java, in
the republic of Indonesia, has become the world capital of a
very unlikely sport. Jakarta, blacktopped and brim-filled with
people, is now ground zero for the game popularized on a broad,
billiard-table-green lawn in Gloucestershire, England, at the
duke of Beaufort's country manor, Badminton. The game's
popularity spread to continental Europe, and it was introduced
to Indonesia by the Dutch, who colonized the islands in the 17th
"It's like baskets in the States," says Gosal, general secretary
of the Indonesian Badminton Association. "Or like soccer in
Brazil. Here badminton became a sport of the public before World
War II and became more and more popular in the 1940s and '50s.
Now the government and the people, their hopes are on
badminton." He pauses meaningfully. "And their expectations."
Indeed, "there is a feeling that we must take two gold medals in
Atlanta," the mono-handled Supardi, a sportswriter for the
popular daily Suara Pembaruan, said a day earlier. He spoke over
tea in the lobby of Jakarta's Mandarin Oriental hotel, where
Indonesian newspapers hung dolefully from teak gripper rods,
bearing ominous news: The national badminton team had not been
playing to the nation's impossible standards.
Bulutangkis, as the game is called in Indonesian, is of grave
importance to the people of this country. So the national
association is run by an army general; a poor Asian Games
performance in 1994 had President Suharto himself saying that he
was "really concerned" about the squad; and a pessimistic
ex-player had looked toward the Summer Olympics in the papers on
this morning in March and proclaimed, "We won't win playing like
At the national team's training center, on the eastern fringe of
Jakarta, 28-year-old Allan Budi Kusuma allows himself a sigh.
"Because we won two gold medals in '92, the government wants
some more in Atlanta," says Kusuma, who won the men's singles
gold medal in Barcelona, where badminton was a medal sport for
the first time. "Well, it is easy to say but not so easy to do."
Because of these pressures, "badminton is just like a job," says
Susi Susanti, 25, whose women's singles victory in Barcelona
brought Indonesia its first Olympic gold medal in 43 years of
independence. "But, yes, I still enjoy it. You have to enjoy it
to do this."
A hundred shuttlecocks fill the floor in front of her like
discarded cups from a watercooler. Susanti, Kusuma and some 80
other national-team members practice six days a week on the
training center's 21 indoor courts. The players live in cramped
dormitories on the edge of the center, which is on a dirt road
marked by fluttering laundry and skittering chickens. "They are
world champions but live in these small rooms," says Gosal in a
dorm whose narrow hall is lined with stickered suitcases. Team
members are constantly kiting off to play tournaments around the
A legend painted on a wall of the center reads, BADMINTON IS MY
SOUL. SPORTSMANSHIP IS MY BREATH. RED AND WHITE IS THE SYMBOL OF
MY FATE. To be sure, the colors of the national flag are not the
only ones that motivate these players. "Indonesia is very famous
for the money," notes Joko Suprianto, the top male badminton
player in both Indonesia and the world. The government gave
Kusuma $200,000 for winning his gold medal; Susanti received the
same plus, because she is a more-decorated champion, a house.
Both players have sponsorship deals with Opel and Yonex, and the
ponytailed Susanti also shills for Rejoice!, a shampoo. One
athlete's BMW sits at curbside. "It's not so glamorous," says
Kusuma. "We are not so special." But a team member's life is
immeasurably more comfortable than that of the average
Indonesian, whose annual income is $1,000.
The badminton skills of the top Indonesians are astonishing.
Suprianto can send a shuttlecock screaming at 200 miles per
hour, which makes him a ringer in most any backyard barbecue
match. Of course, he is no more typical of badminton in
Indonesia than Michael Jordan is of "baskets" in the U.S. "If
you want to see the traditional badminton, you must go to
Central Java," says Gosal. "You must go to Klaten, where they
still play in a bamboo hall. You must see them make shuttlecocks
in the village of Tegal. That is the real, traditional badminton
In a game that has literally abandoned its grass roots, Central
Java is where you will still find them.
"Badminton is my life," says Basri Yusuf, a businessman in the
Central Javanese city of Solo. "That is what they say here:
'Badminton is my life.'"
Here the town square is more of a rectangle: a dirt court
glowing a cadaverous blue beneath fluorescent striplights. The
lights are powered by cables strung from the windows of four
houses. People pull easy chairs from their homes and watch the
play go on until well past midnight. It resumes before school
the next morning at 6:30. There are challenge matches with other
neighborhoods. All in all, it is a joyous good time, like
"baskets" in Brooklyn. That is what they say here: Badminton is
And, often, my living. There are 3,600 residents in the Central
Javanese village of Tegal, and half of them work for the Gadjah
Mada company, handcrafting shuttlecocks, each made with 16
identical goose feathers. A stream runs through Tegal, and
workers clean and dry the feathers on its banks. Geese waddle
by, but these birdies will not become birdies, because they are
pets, unlike those raised to feather the shuttlecocks.
The villagers, however, call the sport's feathered projectile
neither a birdie nor a shuttlecock but a bal, which is also
another way to say badminton. At midday several teens repair to
one of 11 dirt courts to play bal, testing their handicrafts
beneath a canopy of coconut and mango trees.
In Klaten, 125 miles to the southeast, locals play bulutangkis
beneath the thatched roof of the village's famous hall. Just
outside its bamboo walls the locals once made world-renowned
supra-wood rackets by hand--until the world switched to
graphite. "No problem," to borrow a favorite borrowed expression
in Indonesia. The workers retooled, and now they hand make their
renowned supra-wood...acoustic guitars.
A stringed quartet is playing doubles on the court today. The
players are members of a top-flight club from Solo with the
unfortunate acronym of PMS. Suprianto played for PMS from age 10
until he was 16, when he joined the national team in Jakarta. "I
want to be champion!" a 13-year-old boy tells a visitor from the
"Can I see your American money?" asks a 14-year-old girl. Shown
a five-spot, the schoolgirl giggles like a schoolgirl. "Can I
keep it for my collection?"
To many Javanese the host nation of these Olympics is a source
of guarded fascination. Herman S. Karamoy is a sportswriter for
the Protestant weekly Tribun who loves the Beach Boys, the
Everly Brothers and "Kirk Douglas in The Last Sunset." But as
midnight draws near in a Solo coffee shop, he voices a concern.
"I think the Cuckoo Clan is very big in Atlanta," he says, aptly
mispronouncing Ku Klux Klan. "I don't think they will like my
dark skin in Atlanta." Assured that this notion is as antiquated
as the Everly Brothers, he brightens. "At-lan-ta!" says Karamoy,
who is given to bursts of almanac-style facts. "Home office of
Coca-Cola and CNN!"
Indeed, Karamoy desperately wants to attend these Olympics, if
only because his nation may not win any gold medals in badminton
at the 2000 or 2004 Games. With the exception of Mia Audina, at
16 the youngest athlete at the training center, Indonesia is
likely to have a bare cupboard come 2000. That raises the stakes
Kusuma and Susanti grew up together on the national team, but
the former didn't even watch the latter's gold medal match in
Barcelona. "I stayed in my room [in the athletes' village],"
says Kusuma. "I didn't watch it on TV."
And now, as Paul Harvey might put it, the rest of the story. "I
was too nervous to watch Susi," admits Kusuma. "But one of my
friends came in and told me she lost the first set." To judge by
Kusuma's face, he is developing an ulcer at the memory of the
anxious hour that ensued. "Then my friend came and said Susi won
the second set," he recalls, sounding relieved. "In the rubber
[set], I didn't know what was happening." His face clouds, as if
he still doesn't know the outcome. "Finally my friend came to
say it was match point, that I should come and watch. I knew it
must be in Susi's favor."
As she was presented with the first gold medal in the history of
her impossibly vast nation--the world's fourth most populous,
comprising 13,600 islands that stretch across 3,200
miles--Susanti wept. "It was something very precious for
Indonesia," she says.
Ten minutes after the final note of Indonesia Raya had sounded,
Kusuma would open his own gold medal match, against fellow
countryman Ardy Wiranata. By then, Indonesia's men were
guaranteed gold, silver and bronze. Going into the Games, they
had expected China, Malaysia and Denmark to dominate, and they
had set their sights only on a bronze. "Anything else was a
dream," a Badminton Association of Indonesia council member
wrote in Badminton USA magazine. "If God was merciful, we might
In the East Javanese city of Surabaya, Kusuma's father couldn't
bear to watch his son's match on TV, so he paced outside his
house. But God was merciful. "I wasn't nervous," says Kusuma,
who won in straight sets. "I was more nervous watching Susi."
Is it any wonder? The only two gold medalists in the history of
their nation, the only individual gold medalists in the history
of their sport, Allan Kusuma and Susi Susanti, will marry in a
Jakarta hotel in the months after the Olympics. It will be a
virtual royal wedding on Java, which National Geographic
understatedly calls "one of the world's most crowded places."
One hopes there will be valet parking.
And if the happy couple really does look happy, perhaps it means
badminton is more than just a job after all. "I am proud, yes,"
says the groom, reflecting on all that the game has brought him
and his homeland. "And so very, very happy."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY THE HEART OF TEGAL, IN CENTRAL JAVA, IS A TYPICAL OUTDOOR COURT, HOME TO MASTERS, YOUNG AND OLD [Barefoot Indonesian boy playing badminton in street]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY THE SEATS ARE ALL COURTSIDE IN KLATEN, WHERE THE BIRDIES FLY UNDER A 50-YEAR-OLD THATCHED BAMBOO ROOF [Spectators watching badminton match on indoor court]
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN FOR BRINGING INDONESIA ITS FIRST OLYMPIC GOLD, SUSANTI WAS REWARDED WITH $200,000 AND A HOUSE [Susi Susanti preparing to serve in badminton match]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY GOOSE FEATHERS, CLEANED AND SUN-DRIED BESIDE A STREAM, ARE HANDSTITCHED INTO SHUTTLECOCKS [Two Indonesian women making badminton birdies; feathers for shuttlecocks being cleaned]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY IN SURABAYA HOMES, AS IN THE REST OF JAVA, LAST YEAR'S NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS WERE MUST-SEE TV [Indonesian family watching badminton match on TV]