Here’s a familiar summer scene: a family arrives at a neighbourhood park, unpacks for a day of picnicking, and out pops the sports gear. It’s practically a given that along with a soccer ball and a Frisbee will be a handful of badminton racquets.
For all the hoopla that surrounds ball or disk sports in Metro Vancouver, swatting a feathered shuttlecock, or birdie, over a net doesn’t garner anywhere near the same respect. With the advent of this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing, that perception may change.
The first two events to sell out there were the opening ceremonies and, wait for it, badminton. Once the Vancouver 2010 winter games wrap up, badminton is poised to reap a huge boost locally as its courts will become one of the anchor tenants at the almost-complete Richmond Oval on River Road.
Just upstream from the Oval on the opposite side of the Fraser River’s Middle Arm sits the new Sport B.C. building on Cessna Drive. That’s where the Georgia Straight recently met with Badminton B.C. executive director Brock Turner.
“I firmly believe there’s a world champion in B.C.,” he said. “We just haven’t found them yet.” Turner asserted that now that Vancouver is truly an international city, there’s a prime opportunity for this. “Southeast Asia is the hotbed of world badminton and those people are coming here to Richmond.” Badminton B.C. estimates that 40,000 to 60,000 people play the sport in the province. “We think 100,000 kids in school have some exposure to badminton,” Turner said.
Don’t wait for 2010 to confirm that. Look no further than No. 3 Road, the heart of Lulu Island’s commercial district, where former Canadian national badminton team member Darryl Yung and his wife, Michelle, operate two public badminton facilities.
The six-court ClearOne opened in 2003; two years later, the Yungs added a second 12-court facility, ClearTwo, a block away. “We teach as many as 500 students per week,” said the effervescent Darryl, who played in the mixed and men’s doubles at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, an event he described as the most exhilarating point of his life.
“We’re reaching a lot of people, including coaching provincial- and national-team players. When the 24 courts open at the Richmond Oval, badminton will be prominent in Vancouver like never before.”
To meet current demand, this year Yung hired two coaches from Indonesia, the former coach of the Chinese women’s team, plus a coach from Taipei. “Badminton is the second most-played sport in the world next to soccer,” he pointed out. “There’s incredible motivation for young players to get involved.
The speed of the game is so fast-paced. It really appeals to kids, and it’s becoming one of those trends. People like the exercise and excitement, the quick response, the agility and hand-eye coordination required to keep up with the birdie flying back and forth at over 300 kilometres an hour.” (The maximum recorded speed of a smashed shuttlecock is 332 kilometres per hour, faster than any other racquet sport.)
Smashing and driving. Lifting and blocking. Welcome to this not-so-delicate sport that made its Canadian debut in Vancouver in the late 1890s. Badminton B.C. came about in 1925, making it one of the oldest provincial sports organizations in the Dominion. Canada was one of the nine founding nations of the Badminton World Federation in 1934. Today there are 170 members.
Although Canada has never ranked higher than 10th place internationally, Turner pointed out that, locally, the Vancouver Racquets Club, adjacent Nat Bailey Stadium, has nurtured more players from novice-to-Olympic status than any other facility in the country.
“Claire Backhouse-Sharpe is arguably the best player ever produced in Canada,” he said, in reference to the two-time world champion and 1997 B.C. Sports Hall of Fame inductee. “There’s 1,400 people playing on seven [VRC] courts from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m., with lineups during prime time. The business model is that you open a facility and it immediately fills up and usage never ends.”
Turner noted not only the Yungs’ success but also that of other indoor facilities, like Richmond Pro, whose 15 courts make it the largest such centre in North America, and Yumo (Chinese for shuttlecock), whose six Olympic-size courts were funded by a group of Lulu Islanders.
Internationally, badminton matches fill arenas throughout Asia. Surprisingly, though, Denmark hosts the world’s most prestigious professional league, where matches attract upward of 3,000 fans and a countrywide television audience that watches as four matches take place simultaneously. Although Indonesia, South Korea, and Malaysia consistently produce world-class players, in recent times China has emerged as the dominant country.
This summer’s Olympics will provide a real challenge for Canadian athletes such as North Vancouver’s Anna Rice. The Georgia Straight first spoke with the 27-year-old during the Canadian National Championships held at ClearTwo in January, where she defended her women’s singles title.
When contacted recently by phone in Copenhagen, where she plays for top division Team Aarhus, Rice said she’s enjoyed a good year. Currently ranked 23rd in the world, she’s approaching the Beijing games with a sense of seasoned optimism.
“I’ve beaten three of the top 10 women and been close in matches with the top five. I’m hoping to cause some upsets among the Koreans, Chinese, and Indonesians this summer.”
Faced by what Darryl Yung sees as the real possibility of Chinese players sweeping all five badminton gold medals, Rice remains even more upbeat now than when she decided at 16 to ditch Highland dancing and volleyball and make swatting a birdie her principal passion.
“Badminton is such a complete and complex sport,” Rice said. “It combines an aerobic workout with the anaerobics of explosive muscle power. Strategy and tactics guarantee a mental as well as a physical challenge. And you develop spectacular fitness.”
She credited coach Julia Chen with introducing a new tactical perspective into her training when the former Chinese national team member came to Vancouver in the 1990s. Rice likened Chen’s move to a Canadian hockey coach going to Asia.
Given his sport’s renaissance locally, Turner feels in his bones that Canada’s badminton chances are rosier now than they’ve been since the 1970s. Look no further than nine-year-old Clement Chow for evidence of that.
When the Georgia Straight dropped by ClearTwo in early June, Yung was gently encouraging the young prodigy, who responded with one killer shot after another, alternating smashes with soft push strokes while his mother, Yvonne, looked on.
She recalled that on a recent family holiday in Shanghai, Clement and his older brother, Calvin, who won top singles honours in the under-14 division at the 2008 B.C. Winter Games in Cranbrook, joined their Chinese counterparts for a practice. “It was so hot and there was no air con,” Yvonne recalled. “The sweat was pouring off them. It was a good lesson. They got to see how hard those kids have to practise compared to us.”
A short time later, Clement wiped his brow after 30 minutes of hitting birdie after birdie while perfecting lunging and leaping techniques that resembled fencing. On adjacent courts, a kids’ group lesson was wrapping up while pairs and quartets of young professionals shared laughs as they rallied back and forth. A constant stream of children and adults filed in and out. The call of summer wafted in on the breeze: badminton, anyone?
For information on badminton-related activities throughout Metro Vancouver, visit badmintonbc.com/.