Ram Nayyar is still elated. The head coach of the Canadian badminton team and athletes Alex Bruce and Michelle Li were the surprise beneficiaries of an international match fixing scandal on the biggest sports stage in the world. When four women's doubles teams were disqualified from the London Olympic Games, the sport of badminton was tarnished, but the Canadians stood to polish their early exit with a shot at a bronze medal.
"The Olympics is the kind of place where you should expect the unexpected," said Nayyar on Tuesday afternoon from London. "The set of circumstances that led into it were really out of our control. For me my job was to get the athletes as ready as possible given the circumstances. Their job was to perform to the best of their abilities, which they did."
The athletes, both from Ontario and whose partnered name Bruce/Li made them an instant fan favourite at the badminton courts in London, had already been eliminated after losing all three games in the round robin. But two of those results were changed to wins-straight set victories with the opposing score knocked to zero. The two top pairs in Group A, one from South Korea and the other from China, tried to throw their match and lose in order to draw a lower-placed team in the quarter-final. Their "effort" in losing drew tremendous boos from the crowd since it was not the least subtle for such proficient players to make amateur mistakes. The international badminton federation is investigating.
Nayyar didn't sense he and the two Canadians were at the centre of a scandal that pulled four of the world's best from Olympic competition. He told Bruce and Li that sport is what it is because it's unpredictable, exciting and all too human.
"From my vantage point, there are things that happen in every sport, big or small. It doesn't matter, it's just one of those things. It was important for me to frame it that way, not only for myself but for the athletes. There were a lot of questions about it, but the key was that it's really out of our control," he said. "You make the best of what you get."
Bruce and Li gave their best in the quarter-final against the Japanese, the No. 5 ranked team in the world and the fourth seed at the London Games. They lost the match, 12-21, 21-19, 1321 but winning the middle set was a victory. Going even further, the Canadians felt victorious as shouts of "Bruce" and "Li" echoed around the arena and the crowd chanted "Go Canada Go."
"It was tremendous," said Nayyar, who's been with the national team since 2007 and coached Bruce and Li to Pan Am and Commonwealth medals. "The level at which they played was simply spectacular. Going into the third game, it was a great game and had a couple of critical points, a couple rallies, [that could have] gone one way or another-" the coach trailed off, as if still catching his breath. "We were in that match the entire time. For me- this is going to sound really weird maybe-but the girls, while being happy with the play were also disappointed with the loss. And I'm thinking to myself, it's taken a couple days to come to this realization, but how fantastic is that? It's now that we have Canadian athletes that are thinking, 'Hey! We could have done this.' Not that they didn't try themselves, not at all, but next time I know we can."
For Nayyar and the Pan Am Games gold medalists Bruce and Li, the scandal was a windfall that put the overlooked sport of badminton into the Canadian consciousness, where the sport can languish, he has said, on the "island of North America."
"Badminton is a much more popular sport in other parts of the world. In Asia, Europe, people follow it," said Nayyar. The structures that we have currently in terms of competition don't necessarily lead toward a big fan base following, but everything I've seen with his Bruce/Li phenomenon tells me that suddenly people are going to start paying more attention."
The national team coach said he'd be very pleased to see more funding, including support from Own the Podium, to follow.
"We're not on track for that right now, but hopefully these results will help."
Nayyar, the resident professional at the Vancouver Lawn, Tennis and Badminton Club who holds the highest coaching certification available in Canada, walked in the Opening Ceremony and will be in London for the celebratory closing event.
"The world saw us," he said. And so did many Canadians.
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