Dave Barry: Leaving Olympics with memories of badminton, friendly locals and parties

RIO DE JANEIRO — For my last Olympic event, I decided to go see the granddaddy sport of them all — the sport that was played in the very first Olympics, held in 776 B.C. by the ancient Greeks: badminton.

Of course badminton has changed a lot since then. In the ancient games, the athletes competed in the nude. Also, instead of hitting a “birdie” made with goose feathers, they used an actual live goose. As a result the games often took a long time, especially during migration season, when a given rally could wind up in Canada. So shrinkage was also an issue.

The modern game is played on to a smallish rectangular court surrounded by shouting Asians. It is very fast. According to the radar gun at the matches I watched, players were hitting the birdie at speeds in excess of 300 kilometers per hour, which, to give you an idea, is the equivalent of 487.2 hectares Celsius.

Unfortunately, Americans suck at badminton. The problem is our equipment. We typically purchase our badminton equipment from chain drugstores in the form of $12.99 “complete sets” with rackets and poles made from the same material as Olive Garden breadsticks and nets that have been pre-wadded at the factory into a dense ball the size of a walnut. We take this badminton set to our Fourth of July barbecue, and we give it to Uncle Ted to set up “so the kids can play.”

Nine hours later, night has fallen. The kids are racing around, screaming happily as they inflict second-degree sparkler burns on each other; the adults doze in their chairs, emitting beer-and-bratwurst burps. Nobody can hear the exhausted whimpers coming from the darkness somewhere out on the lawn, where Uncle Ted lies helpless, wrapped tightly from head to toe in the badminton net, like the prey of a giant spider.

That is why we suck at badminton.

I saw some good matches, although I regret to report that I missed seeing the biggest name in Olympic badminton: Thailand’s Porntip Buranaprasertsuk. She played a match after I left, defeating Kate Foo Kune of Mauritius, which is an island nation that, according to Wikipedia, was the only known home of the dodo bird. The dodo became extinct after humans arrived, although Wikipedia does not indicate that this was related to badminton.

The most enjoyable match I saw involved a young Brazilian player named Ygor Coelho De Oliveira. He was beaten easily by an obviously superior German player, but the crowd, which was mostly Brazilians, didn’t care. They cheered wildly whenever he managed to score a point, and when he lost, they reacted as though he had won the gold medal, erupting in a noisy, 10-minute-long outpouring of standing-ovation love for their guy.

They are a loving people, the Brazilians. I know that’s a sweeping generalization; I’m sure that there are cold Brazilians, or nasty Brazilians. But I haven’t run into any. Everywhere I’ve gone, people have been consistently, amazingly, nice. And this in a crowded, hectic city of six million people, where I’d expect, as an idiot gringo who doesn’t speak Portuguese, to be viewed as an unwelcome annoyance by the locals. Instead they have been unfailingly helpful, patient and warm.

They are good-hearted people, and they have put their hearts into making these Olympics work. I’m not saying the Rio games have been perfect. The traffic is dystopian. The venue food is close to inedible, and it’s sold at snack bars operating with the efficiency of the DMV. There has been some Olympics-related crime (although I’ve never felt unsafe). And of course there was the baffling mystery of the green diving pool, which might not be solved within our lifetimes.

But for me at least, this has been a wonderful, fun Olympics. I’ve enjoyed it all, from the competitions to the caipirinhas, and I can state for a fact that there ain’t no party like a Copacabana party, ‘cause a Copacabana party don’t stop. Literally, it don’t.

I would love to stay here and party some more, but school and soccer practice are calling, so my daughter and I are heading back to the USA. I’m curious to find out what has been happening up there, especially in the presidential election campaign. I imagine by now it has settled into a serious, dignified, factual discussion of the issues.

Why are you snorting?