There might be three or four times during an Olympics when all the hokum about sportsmanship and honour suddenly and improbably starts to ring true—when something happens to boil away the self-serving fanfare and leave behind pure, distilled product.
We finally got one in London tonight, thanks to Michelle Li and Alex Bruce.
Until yesterday, they were an unheralded doubles badminton pair from Toronto, who had realized their dream by merely making the Games. Theirs was a so-called continental slot—granted as much out of the sport’s desire to look global than Li and Bruce’s merits, which we now know to be considerable. Any one of a dozen teams from China, South Korea, Japan or Denmark might have stood in for them, and finished the opening rounds with better results.
The pair did not win a match during round-robin and knockout play—indeed, they failed to score more than 12 points in a game where 21 wins. On Tuesday, they, were bounced unceremoniously from the tournament by the potent Russian duo of Valeria Sorokina and Nina Vislova.
But sometimes justice takes a ring road. On Wednesday, news broke of of blatant tanking on the part four teams in Bruce and Li’s group—one from China, two from South Korea and one from Indonesia. After a hasty investigation, the Badminton World Federation agreed that the teams had been throwing games, and disqualified all four.
Around 1 p.m. that day, Li and Bruce’s phone rang, and coach Ram Nayyar told them they might be back in the competition. They waited on tenter hooks another four hours before they got confirmation, and when it came, they drew the deepest breaths of their young lives.
“All day [Tuesday], I’d been out with family and friends hanging around London,” Bruce, 22, said. “I had dinner, went to bed, slept in. It was a pretty tame day.” What followed, she added, was “a rollercoaster, with all our nerves, and all the talk of what was going on.
“We just tried to stay calm, just focus on the match.”
The match being a quarterfinal against Australians Leanne Choo and Renuga Veeran—another team resurrected by the disqualifications. To general astonishment, the Canadians won, 21-9, 18-21, and 21-18 (though their 27th world ranking was marginally higher than the Aussies’ No. 36).
Like that, badminton was reborn. The Twitter-verse went nuts. Li and Bruce hit the tops of the newscasts back home. A swell of excitement formed around today’s semifinal, whose capacity crowd of 4,500 was interspersed with merry throngs of hosers shouting, “BRUCE LI! BRUCE LI!”
You’d think the players would wilt. It was hot enough to bake bread in Wembley Arena, a barn that could comfortably host a junior hockey team in a good sized Canadian town.
And they were up against Trouble with a capital T. Mizuki Fujii and Reika Kakiiwa of Japan are the world’s fourth-best team. That took the qualification equivalent of an bullet train to London, and are for all intents and purposes professionals.
No, Li and Bruce didn’t win. And yes there’ll be some among the new generation of win-er-nuthin’ Canadian sportsheads who’ll wave a hand at the scoreline and move on.
But good heavens, these women battled. And make no mistake: doubles badminton is a shootout—fusillades of smashes, punctuated by tricky lobs, placed just so. No one was tanking this time, and anyone in the building could see the Canadians were far from overmatched. They lost the first game 21-12, but they fought back in a thrilling second to grab a 21-19 win.
That set the table for a dramatic third (as did a leather-lung in the southeast corner hollering, “C’mon Canaadaaa! Let’s go, eh!”). But after trading points early on, Li and Bruce fell behind 12-5 and never recovered. They lost 21-13, and will play Sorkina and Vislova again on Saturday for the bronze.
The Russians should expect a much different team.
“For those girls to have done what they’ve done is a message to other badminton nations that we can play this game,” Nayyar told reporters, post-match. On the way out off the floor, the two carried their chins high and promised more of the same in the bronze-medal match.
“I think we showed that belief is an important thing,” said the 20-year-old Li. “You just go out and play. Canada has never done this well. So it should be a sign to all the underdog countries that if you really work hard and grind it out and believe in yourself, anything happen.”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call understatement.