August 2, 2012
Canadian badminton girls lose their semifinal match, but win over our heartsBruce, Li go from no-names to medal contenders as sport grips nation
By STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency
LONDON - What do you do when your Olympics are over and nobody even knows who you are or what you did?
You do a little shopping. You spend some time with family and friends. You go to Canada Olympic House. You tour around the wondrous city that is London.
The next morning, you delightfully sleep in.
And then, you wake up and play for a bronze medal in a sport that nobody really noticed or cared about before Friday: And it's not a dream. It's real. Two unknown members of Canada's Olympic team are suddenly known for all the right and the wrong reasons.
The worst scandal in badminton history might be the best thing to ever happen to Canadian badminton. It has changed the Olympic experience for Michelle Li and Alex Bruce, two university-aged Toronto girls, who were no-names before the match fixing disqualifications changed their lives, and plucked them from oh-for-Olympics elimination to an opportunity to play for gold had they managed to beat highly ranked Japan Thursday.
They lost and they won on Thursday. They lost their match and won the hearts of those watching here at Wembley Arena and those watching on television at home in Canada. For the first time ever, it was Badminton Night In Canada. And we couldn't look away. And after losing all their games in the round robin -- not just the matches, but all the games -- they won a set from the Japanese, with a loud crowd chanting "Bruce. Li. Bruce. Li."
It was something to experience.
Something, frankly, shocking.
They lost 21-12, 19-21, 21-13 to Japan, scoring more points in each game than they managed in any round-robin match. They acted like a patient suddenly cured, with a new attitude, a new belief, a fresh reason to live. After their Olympics had already been read the last rights.
Their coach, Ram Nayyar, knew Li and Bruce were back in the Olympics before the athletes did. Only, he didn't tell them. He didn't want them to know what had gone on politically around the sport. He didn't want them to get nervous about their coming match.
So he let them have some fun. He let them let loose a little. He let them sleep in. And then he told them: They were heading to the medal around.
One win and they're playing for gold.
One loss and they're playing for bronze, against the Russians. That old, great, badminton rivalry: Canada-Russia. The Russians beat them easily in the round robin. And they too were eliminated from the draw and back in when China, Indonesia, and two Korean pairs were all disgraced and sent home after trying to manipulate the draw in their favour.
The Russians were handled a little differently than the Canadians. Their coach had already heard word around the badminton venue that something was up: "We were very disappointed when we were out," said Nina Vislova, one of the Russian players, talking through an interpreter. "But then it was like a shock for us. Our coach tipped us off something was up. We didn't believe him. We thought it would be a lot of talking but nothing else. We were going to do some sightseeing, see London, relax a little."
"We are playing for history," said Vislova.
So are the no longer faceless Canadians. Underdogs, yes. Plucky, definitely. And even all dressed in yellow, which is anything but typically Canadian, they were so very much Canadian. Fighting. Battling. Playing their best when it mattered most.
"It should be a sign for all the underdog countries, if you work hard anything can happen now," said Bruce, who put her University of Western Ontario education on hold to train for the Olympics. "Our game has really changed (this week). Our team has changed. It's so nice to have all this support. We can feel it from across the ocean. It's given us so much belief in ourselves."
Now it's down to a best of one match for the bronze medal Saturday between two countries who have never been this close to a medal before.
"It's very bad for the image of badminton," said Vislova, talking about this week in ironic terms.
Bad for badminton.
Good for Canada and Russia.
"It's unbelievable that top teams could behave in such a manner. And it's very disappointing that the federations and heads of those countries, who tried to defend them. It's a shame that badminton is in the news. It's anti-advertising of badminton."
The best anti-advertising Canadian badminton ever had.