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Bach, Malaythong Lead US Hopes for Olympic Badminton Gold

They come from as far away as Hong Kong, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Laos, but they compete for the United States and share a passion for the sport of badminton. VOA's David Byrd filed this report on the U.S. Badminton team competing in this month's Pan American Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

They are featured in an advertisement for a vitamin-enriched drink playing against Chicago Bears' linebacker Brian Urlacher and David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox. The comical ad ends with Ortiz smashing the shuttlecock into Bob Malaythong's leg.

It is probably the biggest exposure badminton players in the United States have gotten.

But to Howard Bach and Bob Malaythong of the U.S. badminton team, doubles matches are no laughing matter. Howard Bach won the 2005 world championship in men's doubles with his former partner Tony Gunawan. Bach says he hopes the ad helps raise awareness of badminton in the United States.

"Actually at the very beginning I didn't know who Urlacher and Ortiz were. I didn't have any idea they were like the big names in their sport. And they were both huge. So when we got there I was like 'holy ... two big giants!' And I am a pretty small guy, so I felt a little bit left behind. But it's great for the sport and hopefully we will get the attention and the publicity like we do for vitamin water in the future," he said.

While some in the United States think of badminton as a game played at backyard barbecues or social clubs, the International Badminton Federation says there are more than 50 million competitors in 156 countries worldwide.

This year's Sudirman Cup badminton team championship in Scotland was broadcast to an estimated 500 million fans worldwide.

Malaythong says that the speed and excitement of the sport make it fun to watch and to play. He says a new rally scoring system, where every point scores rather than changing serve, makes for a more exciting game.

"It's a totally different game. It gives the underdog much more of a chance and makes the game faster and more even. If you have never played badminton before, I think if you try it, most people would get hooked on it," he said.

One person who got hooked on it is Eva Lee, who was born in Hong Kong, but like Bach and Malaythong immigrated to the United States when she was a child. Eva told VOA Sports that playing in front of international crowds is something she loves to do.

"It's amazing. It's a totally different feeling. Badminton is not very popular in the United States, so it's kind of like a drag. But when you get out there and you see all the crowds and everything else you are just like so excited to play," she said.

Eva Lee is Howard Bach's mixed doubles partner. She also plays women's doubles with May Mangkalakiri, who unlike her three other teammates was born in the United States. May says badminton requires strength and quickness, much like a more familiar game - tennis.

"The speed at which the shuttle leaves the racket is a lot faster than tennis I think. It is just a different game. Our games are not as long as tennis, but the speed is much - you have to be very quick. But I think the best thing is just to let people try it and then they will know how hard it is," she said.

Unlike athletes from other countries, the USA Badminton team is not subsidized by the government. Howard Bach and Bob Malaythong have to work for a living. Eva Lee lives with her parents. May Mangkalakiri says keeping a job is tough because of the demands of travel and competition.

While professional badminton players do earn prize money for some events, it is their ranking points that will determine whether they go to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Howard Bach and his teammates hope their next major international competition includes the Summer Games next year.