JAKARTA (Reuters) - By far the loudest cheers at the main cluster of Asian Games venues in the heart of the Indonesian capital Jakarta over the last couple of weeks have been heard rising from the badminton arena.
Hugely popular in the Southeast Asian host nation, badminton has attracted thousands of spectators – and millions more on television - making it among the most-watched of the two-week event’s 45 sports and 167 disciplines.
Even President Joko Widodo was on hand on Tuesday to watch local hero Jonatan Christie win a gold medal in the men’s singles, making it one of just a handful of events he has attended.
With a capacity of 7,000, the badminton stadium has for days been a sea of red and white – Indonesia’s national colours – along with a sprinkling of fans from India and China, even during the knock-out stages.
The crowd’s cheers rise and fall with shots on the court, roars accompanying each smash or groans when the shuttlecock lands out.
“I’ve stopped by some other events since I’m here anyway, but I’m definitely most excited about badminton,” said Filia Paramita, 26, in between cheering on Indonesia’s star duo, Marcus Gideon and Kevin Sukamuljo, in the men’s doubles semi-final on Monday.
It helps that Indonesia has performed exceptionally well in sport at the Games – in both individual and team events - even breaking an otherwise dominant China’s hold on the sport.
In addition to Christie’s success, Gideon and Sukamuljo will take on Muhammad Ardianto and Fajar Alfian in an all-Indonesian men’s doubles final later on Tuesday.
With fans screaming at almost every point, and some whipped into a frenzy by victorious Indonesian shuttlers who lob their sweaty shirts into the stands, the atmosphere can be somewhat daunting for other players.
“It is a bit tough and you just have to focus a lot when the Indonesians are playing in the other courts and the crowd is shouting in support,” said India’s Saina Nehwal, former world number one, after finishing up a match this week.
Lucky Mirza, a press relations official for the Games, said the popularity of the sport was reflected in ticket sales, with badminton events selling out days ahead of the event compared with the mostly empty stands at events like athletics or hockey.
Although football has taken much of Asia by storm in recent years, many in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, India and China still grow up playing badminton in their backyards or neighbourhood sports halls.
Indonesia has a track record of success at international badminton competition and have won 26 gold medals in badminton over 15 versions of the Asian Games.
Since badminton became an Olympic sport in 1992, however, competition from countries like China, India, Denmark and Spain has grown markedly.
That mattered little on Tuesday when several cabinet ministers, an ex-president and other senior government officials joined thousands of Indonesian fans in the stands at the arena to cheer on Christie and the men’s doubles pairings.
When asked if the crowd had helped his performance in the final against Taiwan’s Chou Tien-chen, Christie said: “Definitely, not just the crowd, but also my grandma, parents and everyone who supported me. Thanks to you, I did it.”
Additional reporting by Sudipto Ganguly and Tabita Diela; Editing by Nick Mulvenney