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US badminton players work to reverse the "backyard curse"

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) " Mention to a badminton superfan the widespread American view that the sport is mostly a backyard lark and watch the steam come out of their ears.

They find it inconceivable that anyone, even Americans steeped in football and basketball, could mistake badminton for anything other than a complex, endlessly fascinating symphony of power, agility and speed.

With apologies to the purists: Most Americans can't see past their leisurely, backyard BBQ encounters with the game.

It wasn't always that way.

Badminton once enthralled many in the United States. Its athletes graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, staged badminton on ice escapades and won world championships.

That was half a century ago. They now struggle to make it out of the first rounds of the Olympics, and to win fans enamored with swimming and track superstars.

The problem, as it is for many Olympic sports that are sensations internationally but less popular in the United States, is money.

When a U.S. athlete faces a player from a traditional badminton power, they're not just facing the individual, they're facing an entire system " all of its financial backing, training facilities, coaching and scouting infrastructure.

"For the U.S., we are all still self-funded. We're individuals. We're not a team," said Iris Wang, a 21-year-old U.S. Olympian from California, after a recent practice session in Rio.

Wang pointed toward some South Koreans practicing nearby.

"They fly together; they train together. We all train separately. They have the resources to bring in a masseuse, physical therapy," said Wang, who took three years off from UCLA to focus on badminton and who will return soon for her sophomore year. "I heard China sometimes brings chefs to tournaments, and we're just struggling to make it through."

Until the mid-20th century, Americans often dominated badminton, and the sport enjoyed widespread popularity.

Dave Freeman, the "Pasadena Flash," a neurosurgeon considered by some to be badminton's greatest player, was the only American man to reach world No. 1 and won the equivalent of the world championship in 1949.

FBI agent Joe Alston boosted the sport when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1955 after winning his second U.S. Open singles title.

Badminton comedy shows toured America in the '40s and '50s, and people lined up for "badminton on ice" reviews.

Gradually, however, football, baseball and basketball began to rob attention from badminton.

Those who now embrace the game in the United States often do so because their parents are fans or because they have relatives or friends who've shown them how seriously badminton is taken in parts of Asia and Europe.

A return to its 20th century heyday will be difficult.

In Asia, the big powers often subsidize their badminton programs. Prospects are scouted young, brought into well-run training programs and nurtured. They don't, for the most part, have to worry about money.

U.S. players, by contrast, must often hustle to pay for a court to practice on, a coach to instruct them, equipment, sparring partners, air fare and tournament entry fees. Without resources they struggle to win, which means sponsors are reluctant to help.

Wang has a sponsorship with a Taiwan-based tech company but also gets help from her parents. She played hard in Rio, but ran into Li Xuerui, the defending Olympic champion from China, and lost 2-0.

Wang said making badminton an NCAA sport could help increase its popularity and encourage more high school students to play. Otherwise, many potentially good players will go to other sports.

Wang smiles when asked how she discovered badminton.

"A backyard birthday party for my sister's friend," she said. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, that's so cool.' I was really intrigued by it, and I was really bad at it."

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Follow Foster Klug at www.twitter.com/apklug . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/foster-klug

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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