Tony Gunawan, the 2000 gold medalist in badminton for Indonesia, moved to California in 2002 to study computer science and coach. Gunawan, considered perhaps the greatest doubles badminton player of all time, teamed with Howard Bach in 2005 to win America’s only world championship in the sport.
But Gunawan is ineligible for the Olympics, where citizenship rules forbid him from competing. Gunawan didn’t get his green card until 2006. It takes three to five years after that to get U.S. citizenship.
So the world championship team split up before the Beijing Olympics, and Bach went looking for another partner.
“Howard is a U.S. citizen and needed to find a new partner,” Gunawan said in a phone interview. “That’s why we split.”
Bach, born in Vietnam and raised in California, found Khan “Bob” Malaythong, a native of Laos who grew up in Maryland. Malaythong is rated lower than Gunawan, but he has the key credential: Malaythong has been a U.S. citizen since 2006.
“It was very good for USA Badminton when he did get his citizenship,” a USOC spokesman, Cecil Bleiker, said in a phone interview. Even so it will be tough for Bach and Malaythong to advance far in the Olympics, where other countries, mainly from East Asia, are dominant in the sport.
Fortunately for the Americans, Olympic rules limit the dominant countries. “Thailand may have 12 teams that are in the top 12 in the world, but they may only send 2 teams,” Bliker said.
Gunawan, meanwhile, may not be able to get citizenship until 2011, when he will be 36 years old. He has not decided whether to naturalize. “I’ll see how it goes — I’ve got four more years to decide,” he said.
Asked what the U.S. could do to improve its performance in arguably the world’s second most popular sport, Gunawan said, “We need more foreign presence in the sport to make the sport level go up.”