Jakarta, Indonesia – On Saturday morning, when Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu became the first Indonesian women doubles team to make a badminton final at the Olympics the two women’s delight echoed around an almost empty arena.
With spectators banned from most Olympic venues because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were none of the usual “IN-DO-NE-SIA!” chants, or loud thunder-stick bangs that usually accompany the players’ victories.
But thousands of miles from the stadium, in their homeland, Indonesia’s legion of badminton fans were thrilled.
Among them was Cindy Susanti, 33, a photographer, who had been waking up early to watch every single badminton game at the Olympics.
From her apartment in North Jakarta, Susanti shouted with joy as Polii and Rahayu won an emphatic straight-set victory: 21-19 and 21-17.
“There were people below my apartment unit who also watched the match. I could hear their screaming from here,” Susanti laughed: “They shouted IN-DO-NE-SIA!”
Badminton has a huge following in the Asia Pacific and Indonesia has long been known as one of the giants of the game, renowned not only for its talented players but also the passion of its fans; a dedication undimmed even amid a devastating pandemic.
Susanti has loved the game since she was a child. She recalls many students would bring rackets and shuttlecocks to school and play during physical education classes and break times.
“I would go to my neighbour’s house to watch the matches because they had a colour television. Mine was still black and white,” she recalled, adding that she would try not to miss a single tournament. Since living in Jakarta, she has made a point of going to the Istora indoor stadium, the country’s top sports venue, each year to watch the Indonesia Open.
Wins and misses
Being a fan is not without its disappointments, of course.
On the same Saturday that Indonesia’s women’s duo made history, Cindy also watched the seasoned men’s doubles pair, Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan, lost to Malaysia’s Aaron Chia and Wooi Yik Soh.
“There are times when our national teams do not win as we expected but I will always be there for them,” she said. “I will always be a proud supporter.”
The nation won its first two gold medals from badminton – the women’s and men’s singles – at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, when badminton first became an Olympic event.
Most of Indonesia’s Olympic glory has come from the sport, which is dominated by countries in the Asia Pacific. Only 13 of 116 medals awarded in the tournament have gone to non-Asian athletes.
“Because of badminton, Indonesia can be known globally,” Broto Happy, the Indonesian Badminton Association (PBSI) spokesman told Al Jazeera.
Happy, who was a senior sports journalist before he joined PBSI, says the Indonesian badminton team is a source of national pride.
He recalls the first pivotal win when the badminton team won the Thomas Cup, badminton’s most prestigious tournament, in Singapore in 1958, just 13 years after independence. Until today, Indonesia has chalked up the most Thomas Cup victories, with 13 wins. China is behind it with nine wins.
Indonesia has also won multiple titles at the All England Championships, the world’s oldest badminton tournament, where it is in fourth place in terms of overall wins with 48 titles, behind China with 85, Denmark on 88, and England on 189.
“In our country badminton is the only sport that has a national training centre,” Happy said. “We also have dormitories. So our badminton players could train there without any interruption all year long. Even during a pandemic. All they had to do was focus on their training.”
Happy puts Asia’s love of badminton down to its accessibility and its reputation as sports that can be played by anyone, anywhere.
“When I was a kid I could play it in front of my house,” he said. “People sometimes play in the small alley. Imagine if it’s tennis, you would need a bigger field, and a better ground, and a more expensive tool. But with badminton when the shuttlecocks were worn out, children could still play it,” he said.
Happy says he believes it also enables Asian athletes to play to their strengths.
“This sport doesn’t need someone to have a tall or big-built body. It’s okay if they are small as long as they are agile and athletic,” he said.
Passion of the crowd
Indonesia’s badminton lovers often devote all their spare cash to watching and supporting their national heroes.
As a student in East Java, Arofah used to save her pocket money so she could travel to Jakarta with her two best friends to watch badminton competitions in person, sharing a hotel room to make the trip more affordable.
One of the 25-year-old’s most memorable trips was to the Total Badminton World Federation (BWF) in 2015.
“One day we spent more than 12 hours inside Istora stadium, watching this world-class tournament,” Arofah said. “It was very worth it. Nothing beats the feeling of standing there and singing the Indonesia national anthem with the entire stadium. I will never forget that.”
Indonesians undying love for badminton is not without heartbreak. The fans have seen the ups and downs of the Indonesian’s national team, including in 2012 when the national team did not bring home any medals from the London Olympics.
Djoko Pekik Irianto, a sports expert from Yogyakarta State University, says it is important that Indonesia ensure there are younger players moving up the ranks in order to ensure the country’s continuing international success.
“Our nation’s men’s doubles are dominated by our old players such as Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan,” Irianto said.
Ahsan and Hendra are now 33 and 36 years old, respectively. As of Tuesday, they are currently ranked second for men’s doubles on the BWF World Ranking, behind 30-year-old Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and 24-year-old Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo, who are also from Indonesia.
“On the women’s team, it’s even more difficult [to see new talents]. So, the problem is in the regeneration. We need to find more talents across regions, to find talents who can replace athletes like Liliyana Natsir and others,” he said.
Irianto said he hoped Indonesia could further develop its players to emulate the success of the 1990s.
“We hope that Indonesia could bring back those glory days again, so when people think of Indonesia, they will think of badminton,” Irianto said.
Meanwhile, in her house in North Sumatra, Arofah is looking forward to Monday’s final matches.
Polii and Rahayu are back on court and going for gold, while Anthony Sinisuka Ginting is in contention for the bronze in the men’s singles.
Sleeping baby on her left arm, her mobile phone in the other and headphones in her ears, Arofah will be watching. She just hopes that soon they’ll be able to do it in person again.
“I hope this pandemic will be over soon,” she said. “We miss to shout IN-DO-NE-SIA for our national team at Istora.”