Badminton grows in popularity with Bay Area athletes

Rackets swung swiftly, propelling white-feathered shuttlecocks across the taut brown net as Howard Bach, a former badminton world champion who will be representing the U.S. in the Olympics this summer, scored one point after another at a competition in Menlo Park.

Bach, who grew up in San Francisco, is the strongest athlete at the Adult National Championship, considered the Super Bowl of badminton, hosted for the first time ever in the Bay Area this weekend.

The championship, many badminton aficionados said, is a testament to the growing popularity of the sport in the Bay Area. Mike Yang, owner of the Golden Gate Badminton Club, which has locations in Menlo Park and Emeryville, said 88 players entered the competition this year, more than double the regular number.

“There is a lot of talent in the Bay Area,” he said. “Now there are more professional clubs that help the sport to grow. It used to be very hard to train in the Bay Area.”

Until two years ago, local athletes had to use the gym at UC Berkeley or go to Los Angeles to train. However, the demand by the large local Asian population who enjoyed the sport led to the launch of three clubs, including a new one in Burlingame that opened in February, Yang said.

He said he has seen a huge growth in interest from local Asian athletes, but Americans have been slow to enter the sport because they are still not very familiar with it.

Bach, who will head to Beijing in three months, said he hoped badminton would get more exposure this year because the Olympics are hosted by China, where badminton is one of the most popular sports.

Since badminton became an Olympic sport in 1992, no American has been able to win a medal — something Bach, 29, is hoping to change. In 2004, he competed in the Olympics, but did not win a medal.

“The Chinese are strong, but until you finish, it’s hard to say who is going to win,” he said. “The main key is that someone has to carry the torch and keep winning.”

svasilyuk@examiner.com

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