Mocked no more badminton finds Pan Am home in Toronto

TORONTO: Badminton may be seen as an oft-mocked pastime to many North Americans, but at this year’s Pan American Games in Toronto, where there are an estimated 20,000 badminton-playing enthusiasts, the sport is right at home.

Tickets for the medal games sold out at the start of the year, surprising even those close to the sport, while the preliminary rounds this week drew large, diverse and exuberant crowds.

With all six Canadian players making it to the podium, including a gold on Thursday for Michelle Li in the women’s singles event, there has been plenty to cheer about for the hometown crowd at the Markham Pan Am/Parapan Am Centre.

“It’s the passion, I guess, that allows me to continue to play and not give up,” said Li, who played with injuries in her right hamstring/quadriceps area and a strained Achilles tendon.

Li, who won against fellow Canadian and doubles partner, Rachelle Honderich, may not be a household name, but she’s the Serena Williams of badminton in Canada, ranked number 15 in the world.

“We really feel embraced by the community here,” said Joe Morisette, Executive Director of Badminton Canada, the sport’s governing body. “People are stopping us on the street to support us and cheer us on.”

Andrew D’Souza won silver on Thursday in the men’s singles event against Kevin Cordon of Guatemala. D’Souza had beaten Cuba’s Osleni Guerrero earlier in a major upset.

Guerrero is ranked 50th in the world, nearly 160 spots higher than D’Souza.

In mixed doubles, Toby Ng and Alex Bruce won silver, while Li and Honderich, along with Bruce and partner Phyllis Chan, won bronze in the women’s doubles.

Medal contenders in the men’s doubles, Adrian Liu and Derrick Ng, were forced to withdraw due to clerical error that disqualified them from the games.

The top-ranked players in the world are mostly from Asia, where badminton is extremely popular.

But its popularity has spread and grown in Canada, particularly in recent years, due to an influx of immigrants bringing their passion for the game to the country, according to Badminton Canada, whose national membership of competitive players number over 62,000.

Hot spots include the Greater Toronto Area and lower mainland British Columbia, where new clubs open almost every month and participation is “through the roof”, said Morisette, who estimates there are over 20,000 competitive and recreational badminton athletes playing on a regular basis.

“It’s one of those sports you can play for life,” he said.

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