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Badminton Star Comes to D.C.

"Let's get a quick raise of hands from those who've played competitive badminton indoors," Howard Bach said at the Bank of America health and insurance sales rally meeting this morning.

A group of financial industry professionals, who a few minutes earlier had been dancing to the Black Eyed Peas, now fell silent.

"Ok, let's disregard that question," said Bach, instead asking who among the several dozen bank employees had played the sport in a backyard while holding a Miller Lite. Many hands were raised.

"There ya go," Bach said with a smile. "I expect nothing less."

Bach, as you've no doubt guessed, is one of the top badminton players in the country, a 29-year-old California-based Olympian who teamed with Tony Gunawan to win the 2005 international world doubles championship, a first for an American. But if you're not a hardcore badder, you likely know him not as American Howard Bach but as generic Chinese pro "Yang," from the Vitamin Water commercial in which Yang's partner--Rockville's Bob Malaythong--is impaled by a shuttle while facing Brian Urlacher and David Ortiz. Naturally.

Ortiz and Urlacher were enthusiastic students of the game; the former had some trouble making contact but the latter "didn't want to stop playing, he was like, 'C'mon man, let's go, let's go,' " Bach said today. "You could totally tell they're natural athletes, because they picked it up right away, and they started getting more challenging, telling you to hit quicker shots."

Some in the badminton community were wary of that ad's portrayal of the sport; "the word abomination comes to mind," wrote one international commenter on a Badminton site, who added "those blokes are soo fat they just have to be baseball players..."

"The key message is to put our sport out there," Bach responded. "We don't get any TV publicity in the U.S. for badminton. That's going to change now. In China, it's all about badminton. It's going to be huge. They were running the commercial quite frequently, so for those who don't know me, that's one way of showing people about competitive badminton. We shot it in a competitive way, we staged everything so that it actually looks professional. It wasn't just like, 'Hey, let's play badminton!' It was the actual real deal."

Badminton real dealness is, in fact, central to Bach's message. He was a high school long jumper, once boasted a better-than-35-inch vertical leap and this morning talked about the sport's demand for strength, speed and stamina, as a bank executive pointed out that the same skills are necessary in the financial services arena. (Notice the smooth transition from giving free publicity to Vitamin Water--which is not one of Bach's actual sponsors--to giving free publicity to Bank of America, which is sponsoring Bach and 11 other U.S. Olympic athletes.)

The company, which earned this puff piece by supporting the U.S. women's curling team in Turin, will roll out an Olympic-themed marketing campaign in April, and has thus followed Bach's lead in touting the intensity and authenticity of competitive badminton; "You get sort of a crooked eyebrow when you tell someone you're sponsoring a badminton player, but the badminton that Howard plays is not the kind of badminton that we're used to on those lazy summer days in our backyard," said Joe Goode, a company spokesman.

And so when Bach speaks to groups, as he did this morning, he asks them to refer to the playing device as a shuttle and not a birdie, he tells them that top players have registered shuttle speeds of more than 200 miles per hour, he explains the training regime that is necessary to be an elite pro and he notes that badminton is the second-most popular participatory sport in the world after soccer. He also considers himself an ambassador for the sport, and so he purposefully avoids being lured into barbeque games, because "that would kind of be the opposite of what I'm working towards," he said.

"I want to change the American mentality of backyard badminton," he said. "That's my ultimate goal. And even if I do retire from badminton, I would still want to be a part of changing the typical mentality, one by one, whenever I can."

Which means that he'll still avoid the barbeque games when he's retired?

"Oh I'm sure I'll play backyard, indoors, whatnot, because I love the sport," he said. "I'll never stop playing. If Urlacher wants to call me, I'll take him up on it."

By Dan Steinberg  |  February 27, 2008; 5:24 PM ET
Categories:  Olympics  
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Nice piece, but I wish the interview was with the guy from Rockville, 'cause I'm region-centric.

Posted by: Lindemann | February 27, 2008 6:25 PM | Report abuse

I love badminton... I played varsity badminton in high school. Good for him -- I hope he wins over more fans. Glad to see it covered and getting some attention.

Posted by: d_k | February 27, 2008 9:52 PM | Report abuse

Badminton star comes to D.C.? Must be talking about Big Papi.

Posted by: Red Sox Monster | February 27, 2008 10:58 PM | Report abuse

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