Balls of Feathers, Shuttlecocks of Steel

There is in fact a finite number of jokes to be made about the word shuttlecock. But after the puerile humor is exhausted, it is the high-speed birdies themselves that attract attention to the sport of badminton. That is, perhaps, why the stands are often empty at Harvard Badminton Club (HBC) competitions.

Unenlightened fans are missing out. The Harvard club team boasts both the pseudo-Latin motto non est picnicum and over 60 top-flight athletes from around the world, which leads to some exciting badminton action.

Aidan C. O’Connor ’05, a women’s singles specialist, hates badminton’s reputation as a sport for women who use parasols and salad forks. “I would never, ever call badminton a delicate sport,” she says. In fact, according to the club’s website and numerous other badminton sites, the shuttlecock—which can travel at speeds up to 200 mph—is the second-fastest-moving object in sports behind the jai-alai ball. “Bad,” as O’Connor and her teammates call it, is a game of nuance, strategy and superhuman agility, played most competitively in Southeast Asia and Denmark. Badminton was first observed by British army personnel in occupied India circa 1850, where—called “Poona”—it had existed for centuries. Entranced by the game, the soldiers brought it home. As lore has it, one afternoon the Duke of Beaufort was having a party at his estate, named “Badminton,” where poona was being played. Needless to say, the guests adored the new game and several monocles were shattered in bewildered amusement at the flying “battledore,” which is a silly, suggestive and archaic name for the shuttlecock.

According to badminton fans and badminton Internet message board junkies, their beloved sport is second only to soccer in the competition to be the world’s most-played sport. At the Olympics, competitors are divided into three divisions: singles, doubles and mixed doubles, making badminton—along with ice-skating and ballroom dancing—one of the only high-profile coed sports in the world.

So not only do men and women do it together, they employ shuttlecocks in the process. This unique piece of sporting equipment is made of cork, with the feathers made from the left wing of a goose (to ensure consistency). And while O’Connor insists the sport is far from delicate, the equipment is. A shuttlecock is only good for one game. If Yue Wu ’02, strapping Swiss import and Harvard’s men’s singles virtuoso, is playing, a shuttlecock will last about five minutes. At $15 a dozen, Wu’s brawn can get expensive. It pays off, though—Wu leads the Harvard Badminton Club in tournament play.

Right now, the HBC is preparing for the Boston Open, which takes place at the end of February. More than anything, the club needs fans, as its matches are often horribly under-attended. Not only can spectators enjoy high-quality badminton, the diehard fan can invest in an HBC t-shirt—emblazoned, inevitably, with the adage “Balls of Feathers, Shuttlecocks of Steel.”

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