"We resent any comparison to the outdoor game," thundered Clay Norment of the Badminton Club of D.C., a venerable institution that's been around since the Great Depression.
According to Norment and the hundred members of his club; which meets four times a week at the St. Albans School gym off Massachusetts Avenue, it's outdoors badminton that has fostered the image of a game for patsies.
Plastic shuttlecocks, loosely strung rackets, badminton sets that sell for $10 and are gone in the flash of one solid hit -- these are sources of serious misrepresentation.
They paint a picture of a pitty-pat game played by ladies in long dresses at spring picnics.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
"This is the toughest racquet sport there is from the standpoint of speed and endurance," Norment huffed.
He had the horse on hand to prove it. Present last week at one of the club's evening sessions was a man who 11 times won the national doubles championship of the United States. Don Paup is no pitty-patter. He's as serious an athlete as there is, and his sport is badminton.
Paup is a professor of human kinetics and leisure studies (that's what they call phys ed these days) at George Washington University. He has played badminton for 26 years, and at the age of 40 he and partner Peter Cornell of Philadelphia are still ranked seventh-best doubles team in the nation.
How fast is badminton? "In our national championship mixed doubles semifinals one year we decided to time the bird [shuttle-cock] on some rallies. On one rally it went over the net 24 times in 14 seconds. That's about 958 seconds per hit, and that's fast.
"I don't think I can bounce it off my racket that fast, standing right here," Paup tried. When the second hand hit 14 I called stop and he had 20 hits counted.
Paup said scientific studies have indicated that a shuttlecock leaving the face of a racket after being smashed by a strong badminton player travels initially at a speed inecess of 200 miles per hour.
The reason that anyone ever gets to hit the bird again lies in its design. Real shuttlecocks are not made of plastic: They have cork centers covered with leather, and a cone of goose feathers trailing off behind.
The feathers slow the bird dramatically as it flies, so that even the strongest players have a hard time smashing from their end of the court over the opponent's baseline, hitting as hard as they can. The bird erupts from the racket, screams across the net and then dies.
It makes for some spectacular "gets."
In fact, the get is something of an art form in badminton. Paup and his legal protege, Rick Thompson, put on a singles display for a couple of games. lThe older Paup has immaculate control of the bird, which means he takes great delight in sending Thompson racing to the baseline and then dropping the next shot barely over the net, a dying quail.
Thompson, young and energetic, more than once left his feet somewhere in the serving box, made a Pete Rose head-first dive toward the net and barely reached the fluttering bird from a perfect flat personal flight trajectory.
He did not often return Paup's follow-up shots.
Watching indoor badminton gives a sense of the terrific speed with which shots must be made, but it doesn't quite convey the energy output that all the players claim is required.
Says Carol Wood, to whom badminton is a second sport (she's ranked no. 1 in the nation in over-40 women's tennis doubles): "Badminton is definitely more physically demanding then tennis. You have to move much faster and you have less time to rest. I've played plenty of three-hour tennis matches. No one can play badminton for three hours straight."
By way of demonstrating, they had me play a game against Norment, a badminton player of moderate skill.
Norment, finally faced with a genuine patsy, was merciless. The running didn't wipe me out. What did was the unseemly force with which I found I had to smash the bird to return it deep. At 10-3 I decided to just hit it as hard as I could. Even at that, I never knocked a single return beyond the end line.
It's a strange feeling, whacking a tiny, feathered bird with a whip-fast 4 1/2-ounce racket just as hard as you can. Of course it's rare in most instances in life that you get to do anything as hard as you can. It wears you out. At 15-3 Norment smiled and led me off the court.
"You know," said Paup, "when you were out there I hear you say something that every person I've ever seen try this sport has said, 'Hey, this is fun!'"
"Any it was, even in ignominious defeat.