I’ve never been a fan of sports. This is on the record and so deeply embedded that it will be mentioned in my obituary. I’ve usually avoided the Olympics, because it’s the Vatican event of sports, like when the Pope gives the Easter address and everyone goes.

But she who loves kids made me watch the girls’ gymnastics and the swimming … OK. Then suddenly there on the screen: badminton. OMG! Badminton? Really? Badminton at the Olympics? Why not card tricks or checkers? Did I miss the horseshoe event? The three-legged race? Badminton? What’s for the next summer games? Crocheting? Graffiti?

This is Jesse Owens country, Carl Lewis and Bruce Jenner’s turf. It’s the story of Jim Thorpe’s victory and tragedy. This has always been where men and women sweat, strain, perform superhuman events. This is where Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) won five gold medals, for Pete’s sake.

Can you imagine Astylos of Crotona, the victor in three successive ancient Olympiads, running around naked with a paddle swatting at a shuttlecock? No, I’m sure Astylos didn’t enter in the roster, but apparently somewhere down the field, maybe past the falafel stands and baklava shops, some skinny Greeks set up a net and started the game. These were probably the “sissy” guys who weren’t picked for the tough games, such as lifting steers and naked wrestling. These were the guys with thick glasses who today know all the answers to how your computers work — the “Greek Geeks.”

I did some research on this silliness and was shocked at how seriously people take this game. It first appeared in ancient times and resembled a child’s game called “battledore and shuttlecock.” Stop me if I’m wrong, but weren’t those the two guys who were in the Harry Potter movies? You see? You didn’t think I read the classics.

Of course you can research this all yourself, but then it would take you away from talking about Paul Ryan, and I would have to write about that.

How did it get its name? It was called “poona” when it was played by the British in India. But can you imagine some lords walking into the drawing room and asking, “How about some poona?”

So when the Duke of Beaufort started up a game at his country place, “badminton,” the name was stabilized. In those days, they really knew how to play in style. It was all Ralph Lauren Polo-land. They wore white shirts and ascots, nice white flannel trousers and white bucks properly powdered, while Indian servants moved around with gin and little cucumber sandwiches. Nobody was naked.

Badminton was entered into the summer Olympic games in 1992 at the Barcelona games. That explains a lot. I can just see a bunch of bullfighters sitting around in a tapas bar getting stoned on sangria, and one says, “Let’s pick a game where nobody gets gored and stomped by bulls.” Another says, “You know that game the Brits played where they got to wear white flannel trousers and white bucks? What was it called?” Another toreador offered, “Poona?” They all decided on the proper name. Enter badminton.

I couldn’t force myself to watch it, but there must be something different about Olympic badminton from the game we played at family gatherings. I remember someone in the family got a set for Christmas, and it sat in a closet for years until that picnic when someone said, “Let’s wrestle.” And another said, “No, let’s play badminton.”

My brother Jug was great at badminton, even when he was drinking. He could hit that little birdie with his left hand and hold a Budweiser with his right. Fried chicken replaced cucumber sandwiches, and nobody wore an ascot. I guess it’s officially in, but it will never replace women’s beach volleyball in my heart.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

 

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