SEARCH 2000 Games

Monday, August 14, 2000

Thin line between love and hate

 Marita Kloseck knows a billion people will be mad at her. Fortunately, she also knows a billion will love her.

 There is, therefore, a fine balance in the delicate tight-rope walk the London medical researcher will undertake at the Sydney Olympics next month during a little-understood but razor-sharp sport of which she holds one of the most difficult arbiting roles.

 She is a line judge in the badminton competition.

 "It's estimated there will be 1.6 billion viewers in Asia alone," she said at Parkwood Hospital. "Half the people are going to like your call, half of them will hate your call."

 That's the people watching. For the athletes, whose very livelihoods depend on her decisions, the instant calls can be make-or-break. For years. There's a lot on the line for line judges and everyone else.

 First, a primer on badminton, which will be making its third Olympic appearance in Australia. Say bird or birdie when describing the object flashing back and forth across the net and you might wind up wearing a racquet handle as a necktie.

 They are called shuttlecocks or shuttles and the five-gram missiles leave the racquet at up to 320 kilometres an hour, leading to badminton's boast of being the world's fastest racquet sport. Top players can run as far as two kilometres in a match.

 Ever comparing itself to other racquet sports, badminton claims to have twice the number of shots per match, which last about a third the time required in tennis. Its proponents further claim the time in play for the shuttle is 37 minutes a match, compared to 18 for the tennis ball.

 One thing is certain. It is fast. So are the decisions of those judging it.

 "The mix of angles, the speed of play, the quickness is what is striking, especially in men's singles," said Kloseck, whose own competitive career was cut short by severe knee injuries. "In the time you blink, the shuttle has landed. There's so much at stake for the players. When we were doing the world championships in Scotland, to give you some sense of the level of play, it went to three matches and every shot was critical.

 "The players are trained to aim for those lines. If it's out, it's just out by a fraction. Even if you're one seat over from the line you can't get a true perspective of whether or not it's out. You have to have a thick skin."

 The German-born Kloseck earned a trip to her first Olympics four years ago through two years of intensive training in the U.S. She'd been studying at Oklahoma State and was nominated by the U.S. Badminton Association. She remembers some tough rides, including a clearly audible diatribe by a TV commentator seated near a colleague at the U.S. Open.

 "The commentator criticized the line judge after a critical point against a European player," Kloseck recalled. "For the better part of 10 minutes he criticized the call, saying the shuttle was obviously in. The poor woman was drenched when we came off. But in the officials' lounge, we replayed the broadcast and the call was absolutely perfect. The commentator apologized on-air."

 Sometimes, line judges are subject to loud criticism during critical matches from everyone in the arena and that 50-50 balance goes decidedly against the judge. They can feel the cameras in their face and the antipathy of the crowd.

 "It's part of the two-year training program," she said. "You have to maintain your composure when a coach or player is right in your face waving a racquet."

 After the Olympics, Kloseck was involved in the world championships, the Swiss Open, the Dutch Open and Norwegian Open, line judging as well as training and co-ordinating line judges. She'll be the lone Canadian line judge in Sydney.

 The game is all angles, of course. Even IBF-trained officials came away from one key match at the Olympics, in which a favourite was knocked out of the medal round, convinced the line judge had erred. Again, replays showed the call was correct.

 Kloseck, injured in her early 20s to the degree knee replacement surgery was a consideration, made a bit of a comeback while taking her doctorate at the University of Waterloo and finds amusement in the fact some of her teammates were the children of former opponents. But further activity is out because of her knees. Line judging, with its intensity of emotion, is the next-best thing to being on the court.

 "Every (major competition) I say this is the last one," she laughed. "But with the next Olympics in Athens, and then possibly Toronto after that in 2008 . . . well, maybe then would be a good time to retire," added the woman with a voice perfectly suited for radio or television commentary.