That picture," says Joe Alston, the only badminton champion ever
featured on the cover of SI, "really changed my life." Alston,
now 72, was in his fourth year as an agent with the FBI and had
just won the U.S. Open singles title. "I was due to be
transferred to checking security clearances when that cover came
out," he says. "The bosses said, 'Maybe this isn't the time to
have you doing undercover surveillance.' As a result, I
continued working investigations--kidnappings, extortions, bank
robberies, all the good stuff--the rest of my 30 years in the
Alston, who grew up in San Diego, met his bride-to-be, Lois
Smedley, on a badminton court shortly after getting out of the
merchant marine in 1947. They were married in '51, just after
Joe had won his first national singles title and joined the FBI.
J. Edgar Hoover thought having an agent winning championships
was good p.r., so Alston was allowed to take several weeks of
leave each year to travel to tournaments.
Top-level badminton is to the game we play at family picnics
what the NBA is to H-O-R-S-E in the driveway. Alston won the
World Invitational singles in Scotland in 1956 and in '57 became
the only American to win the all-England doubles title--teaming
with partner Johnny Heah of Malaya. He was No. 1 in the U.S. a
record 28 times in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, and he
won two U.S. Open mixed titles with Lois, who ranked as high as
No. 3 in the world in women's singles. Eight times he
represented the U.S. in the triennial Thomas Cup team
competition, and he captained the American squad in '78-79.
From 1967 through '80 Alston was the FBI's major case
coordinator in Los Angeles, overseeing such high-profile cases
as those of D.B. Cooper and Patty Hearst. "When I retired from
the Bureau in 1981, there weren't many people with as much
experience as I had investigating kidnapping and extortion
cases," he says, "so it led to a perfect job as a consultant
with a private firm in Beverly Hills. I traveled all over the
world for the next 10 years."
May 2, 1999
Hip replacements in 1982 and '86 ended Alston's badminton
career, but he still cheers on Lois in senior events. They play
golf a couple of times a week near their house in Solana Beach,
Calif., and have two sons: Nick, 41, a commercial-mortgage
banker, and Tony, 37, an FBI special agent and Thomas Cup
veteran. "Every morning I think, God, I'm lucky," says Alston.
"The Bureau liked me playing badminton, and my wife loved to
play, too. I haven't got a complaint in the world."
As an FBI agent he was involved in high-profile cases like those
of D.B. Cooper and Patty Hearst.