WATCH ABOVE: Hundreds of the best badminton players in the world are in Calgary competing June 23 to 28. Lisa MacGregor reports.
CALGARY – With shuttles that can clock upwards of 300 kilometres per hour, badminton is the fastest racket sport in the world, and extremely physically demanding on high-level players.
So no, we’re not talking about BBQ badminton.
Michelle Li is the best Canadian women’s player in the world. She’s ranked 15th in the world, trains seven hours a day, six days a week–all to prepare for international tournaments like the Canada Open, hosted for the first time in Calgary this week.
“People think it’s still just a backyard sport, where you just go outside and just poke at the shuttle. People don’t really know how tough it is,” Li said.
This year’s Canada Open is an Olympic qualifier event, with knockout rounds and a level of play that’s become more like a game of chess.
“It’s no longer about physical ability, because everyone has the same shots, same power, same speed, same stamina, same fitness,” she said. “It’s all about mental.”
“You can have fake shots, like you can pretend to hit soft and then you go hard, or vice versa,” said Calgary player Kylie O’Donogue.
More than 250 players are representing 32 countries around the world at the annual tournament, running June 23 until June 28 at WinSport Arena.
O’Donogue started playing when she was eight, and says the sport isn’t as popular in southern Alberta.
“They ask if you play tennis, and when you say you play badminton, they get disinterested or they say, ‘Wow, I used to play that in high school.’ I think I’ve been asked: ‘Do you play indoor or outdoor badminton?'” O’Donogue said.
The 18-year-old laughs it off, knowing she competes for prize purses like the USD$50,000 in this week’s tournament.
“I think there’s starting to be a lot more cash in badminton, not as much as tennis and it’s not as big, but when you go to Asia, it’s like hockey is here. That’s how big it is in Asia. They’ve got Asian games and they’ve got stands of people coming to watch small tournaments there,” O’Donogue said.
Canadian players say China is the fiercest country on the court, with badminton players who are basically born with a racquet in their hands, and only showcase their very best to the rest of the world. They even have a team of analysts studying the competition.
“They’ve trained a lot more, they’re a lot quicker, they’re a lot stronger than most of us, but we can still definitely compete with them. We’ve been playing our entire lives, too,” said Calgary player Austin Bauer.
At Canada Open, Calgarians finally have the home court advantage.
“I’ve travelled across the world to play and in my hometown, it’s super incredible to see some of the best players in the world right in the same city as you,” Bauer said.
“It’s nice that we can have people who don’t even play badminton just to get to come watch the high level that we have this week, and they can really appreciate the sport,” O’Donogue said.
Badminton can be an acquired taste for sports fans but Li’s goal is to smash through that. She’s turned down opportunities to train in Asia, in the hopes she can grow her beloved sport at home.
“Hopefully it will become something like tennis, because I think it takes just as much effort as tennis players, to become pro,” Li said.