Indonesian athletes look beyond Olympic glory

  • 28 July 2012
  • From the section Asia
File photo: Indonesian badminton players Liliyana Natsir (L) and Tontowi Ahmad
Image caption Lilyana Natsir (L) said she remains practical about her prospects after she hangs up her racket

Early morning practice on the courts, and already the sweat is pouring down the faces of the Indonesian Olympic badminton team players.

Everyone is hard at work, getting ready for the big day in London.

Grunts fill the air as coaches whack the delicate white shuttlecock back and forth to players on the other side of the net, in what seem like endless rallies.

The pressure is on the young men and women in this team to bring back at least one medal.

Indonesia is a gold medal contender in the Olympics only because of badminton.

Quality athletes

It comes as a surprise to many in the sporting world the world's fourth most populous nation does not compete in more events at the Olympics.

But what is even more worrying is that over the years, fewer and fewer athletes in this country have qualified for the Olympics. This year, only 22 Indonesians are heading to the UK to compete.

Arguably, what Indonesia has failed to deliver in terms of quantity, it has made up for in quality - at least since badminton was included in the games in 1992. Indonesia has won at least one gold medal every Olympics since then.

But this year there have been concerns that Indonesia would not do as well as it has in the past, having lost some key tournaments ahead of the games.

"We're hoping that we won't let anyone down," said Lilyana Natsir, part of the mixed doubles pair that Indonesians are hoping will bring in the gold medal this year.

"It is a tough competition, but we are grateful for the support of the public, and we will do our best."

But optimism amongst the young athletes remains high. The previous generation of Indonesia's Olympians has expressed worries that because of the government's lack of development in sports and inefficient management, the prized medals may be out of reach for Indonesia's badminton team this year.

Ask any Indonesian about badminton victories, and chances are that the names Alan Budikusuma and Susi Susanti will come up.

The two are national heroes - Indonesia's golden couple.

The married duo won Indonesia's first gold medals for badminton in the 1992 Olympics - a huge moment of pride for Indonesians and one that many still remember.

'No support'

These days the superstar couple run a badminton club where amongst other children, they also teach their own kids.

Image caption Alan Budikusuma (L) and Susi Susanti won Indonesia's first Olympic gold in badminton

But Alan and Susi agree they would never let their own children become professional athletes

"I will always support my childrens' interest in badminton, but only as a hobby," Susi said, as she cast a critical parental eye on her three children practicing on the courts.

"They should focus on their studies. There is still no future in sports. I want a secure future for my children."

Harsh words from one of Indonesia's former Olympians, and surprising given that Alan and Susi were some of the lucky ones.

But Susi said that the government must do more to protect the future of Olympic sports like badminton in Indonesia.

"I don't think the current players get enough support from the government," she said.

"When you decide to become a badminton player in Indonesia, you are basically giving up your life. You have to think about your future on your own, the way that my husband and I did after we retired and started our own business. The government here will only look after you while you're on the courts."

Those kinds of sentiments are shared by some of today's athletes too, and are inevitably having an impact on how Indonesians view pro-sports as a career choice.

Practical prospects

Lilyana Natsir says she has to remain practical about her prospects after she hangs up her racket.

Image caption Mr Thohir said Indonesia was working to provide more benefits to its athletes

"In other countries like China and Korea, medallists get a pension and some help from the government after they retire," she said.

"But here in Indonesia, it's not like that. So I haven't been foolish, I've used my money wisely with the help of my mum to make investments. In Indonesia you have to focus on competing and also worry about your financial future."

Indonesian officials know morale is low, which is why they are promising more incentives for Olympic medallists now than ever before.

"I have a tough job, I know that," Erick Thohir, chief mission of the Indonesian Olympics team said.

"I have to build the spirit of the team, which is why you'll see me cheering them on at all times

"But I've also been working hard over the last couple of months to support our future medallists, to ensure that they get the bonus money they're supposed to, and also to ensure that they get insurance until they are 75 years old."

Back on the courts, Alan is drilling the basics of badminton into his nine-year-old son.

He is not planning on letting his son go pro, but it takes this kind of nurturing to produce a world class athlete.

Indonesia needs to groom its next generation of shuttlers, so it can continue to go for gold.

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