Minor Olympic Sports Hold Their Own

Sports such as swimming, basketball and gymnastics get huge amounts of attention at the Olympics. But there are plenty of storylines and drama, too, in less visible sports such as badminton, team handball and fencing.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. During the Olympics, most people focus on the marquee sports: swimming, track and field, gymnastics, maybe basketball. But, of course, there are many less-watched sports, from archery to team handball, and in the past few days, NPR's Frank Langfitt has been paying attention to some of the contests that unfold away from the limelight, and he's on the line with us now from Beijing. So Frank, what did you see today?

FRANK LANGFITT: Well, tonight I went to see the men's saber final, and I saw China win its first fencing gold in about 24 years. The guy who won is named Zhong Man. He's a handsome, 6-foot, 3-inch fencer, and he's not really all that well-known on the international scene.

In fact, afterwards at the press conference, the reporters were sort of asking, you know, where did you come from and sort of how did you pull this off?

SIEGEL: Well, fencing is certainly a minor sport in the United States. Is it big in China? Do people seem to know about it there?

LANGFITT: No, not at all. It's not well-known at all, but tonight, you know, people were completely into it. The scene was very festive. The two men were fighting on this big stage that was spot-lit. It was kind of theatrical. In between the matches, they played the "Pirates of the Caribbean" theme, and people were stamping their feet, waving Chinese flags.

When the man who got the silver medal, the Frenchman - at one point he was behind in points, and he knelt to tie his shoe, and I think the crowd thought he was stalling, so they started booing him. Afterwards, I met a reporter from Tianjin Daily, it's a newspaper on the coast outside of Beijing. The woman's name was Su Ya Wei(ph), and she was so excited she was literally shaking. I asked her why, and this is what she said.

Ms. SU YA WEI (Reporter): (Speaking foreign language)

LANGFITT: She said, we Chinese have waited a long time for a gold medal. I believe everybody in the world will be proud of him. He's the best.

SIEGEL: Well, at least he'll be very famous in Budapest, I think, after winning a medal in fencing. But what other sports have you been watching, Frank?

LANGFITT: Well, a few days ago, I went to badminton. It's obviously completely different from fencing in the sense that it's really popular in China but not all that popular in the West.

The match was between a Canadian, her name's Anna Rice, and an American, Eva Lee, and so you had these two North Americans in front of about 4,000 cheering Chinese.

I only know badminton from a net in the backyard, and this is a completely different game. You had these looping serves that would go about 40 feet in the air, and there were some line drives, and I was reading a book - some of the drives go as fast as about 150 miles an hour.

SIEGEL: Wow. Well, how was the match that you saw?

LANGFITT: It was really exciting. There were long rallies. Just before the match point, Anna Rice hit this dink shot that sent Eva Lee sprawling, and then on the next one, she got her to hit it into the net.

SIEGEL: Now, this is a sport that the Chinese do see on television. They're familiar with it. How did they react to all of this?

LANGFITT: They loved it. I think they really love seeing people from Western countries kind of really take to a sport that they have dominated for years, and when Rice was walking by the stands, hundreds of people were cheering for her and reaching out to her. And frankly, I think one of my favorite moments of the games so far was when she took off this - she had a red sweatband on her wrist and she threw it into the stands, and everybody was cheering. It was just this sort of great moment between two, you know, really different cultures.

On the way out, I asked her the difference between playing in China and playing in Canada, and here's what she said.

Ms. ANNA RICE (Olympic Badminton Player): Well, it's night and day, you know. Here, they know who you are. They value your sport. It's really - it's a hugely popular sport. I mean, look at the - it was sold out. It was tough for my family to even get tickets. So it's really a special time. It's really going to be the pinnacle for badminton in the Olympics in this century.

LANGFITT: And Rice said one of the nice things about being in China is that unlike Canada, where not that many people know her, here people actually recognize her on the street.

SIEGEL: Frank Langfitt in Beijing, thanks a lot.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Robert.

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