It’s a Wednesday night in the gym at Danforth Tech Collegiate and dozens of men in T-shirts and shorts are running, sweating and swinging racquets furiously in a demanding game of . . . badminton? That can’t be right. Shouldn’t they be daintily flicking the racquet with one hand, balancing a cucumber sandwich and a cup of tea on the other? It’s not as if they’re chasing a real ball, even: it’s some little plastic nub wrapped in a doily and called a shuttlecock. How do they not just giggle all through it?
“People have the wrong impression of badminton,” says Brian Tran, a Ryerson grad student who joined Toronto’s gay and lesbian badminton league, BadinTO, earlier this year. “People who’ve played it in their backyards think it’s very lighthearted, but badminton is actually a very intense sport. It takes a lot of discipline and strategy. Badminton is very special to me because it’s a very civilized sport. It’s all about being centred in your body and your mind, and the focus is on self-discipline.”
Makes sense: it was tea-sipping British military officers stationed in India in the 1850s who developed this sport, which was eventually included in the Olympics in 1992. In a survey of athletes and sports doctors in 2004, the US sports channel ESPN ranked the 60 most difficult sports and placed badminton at number 30 — easier than cycling and ski jumping but tougher than rowing, swimming and several types of track and field.
“There are tons of injuries,” says Vince Chan, who has played badminton since he was 14, placing first in Ontario college championships two years in a row. He took over the leadership of BadinTO six years ago and insists that the sport can be dangerous if one isn’t careful: “A badminton bird hit by a professional can reach over 200 miles per hour, and these guys are only standing six feet apart. I’ve knocked someone’s glasses off and they got pieces of glass in their eyebrow, blood everywhere.”
Most amateur matches, of course, are nowhere near that intense, but here comes the very fit Michael Babb (better known as DJ Deko-ze), with his forehead beaded with sweat after a 10-minute game. “I love it,” he says. “It’s a great release.” A third-year player, he agrees with Brian Tran that focus is highly important, but, he laughs, “Whether I have that focus or not remains to be seen. The only athletics I’d ever done in school was sprints, so this is new and very different. And fun. It’s nice to do something away from the scene. I meet different people and I can relax and not be on, you know?”
Unlike a lot of other Toronto sports groups, Babb says, “one thing I really like about this league is that you can play at your level or you can play with experts. It forces you to play better when you can play with someone one or two levels above you.”
It also encourages a communal vibe that Chan, as president, has worked hard to achieve. He tells a story about organizing a game during college: “Three of us were signed up for a court; all of us very advanced players. This new guy came along, not a good player at the time, and he joined us, but the other two players just walked off the court. I never forgot the look on his face.”
That would never happen with BadinTO. The group is very social, with players of different skill sets playing together and then all going out for dinner. “Our mission statement, which I had a hand in writing when I took over,” Chan says, “is that it’s all about respect.” It’s especially important in a queer group, he says. “As gay men and lesbians, we have enough people being shitty towards us; we don’t need to be shitty to each other at the club.”
“I tried to make it lighter and more fun,” Chan says, and it seems to be working: the league currently hosts about 110 members. “Thank god not all of them come at once!” he laughs. New recruit Tran says, “I feel very lucky as a new member because it was so welcoming. I felt a real sense of community that I had been looking for. This has been my deflowering as far as gay leagues go.”
Andrew Shaddick is his opposite, a 10-year veteran of the group who joined with his partner after growing tired of sport-club cliques: “The better players want to stick together and get better and better.” Badminton, however, “is a much more social game,” he says. “It’s a really great bunch of people here, and there’s a lot of fun and playfulness.” Shaddick used to play squash but got tired of the machismo. “It’s very alpha,” he laughs, “very MBAs-with-briefcases wanting to kill you.”
So badminton, then, is the warm-hearted and gentle sport that is physically exhausting and all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Maybe its paradoxes can’t be explained at all but only experienced. Good thing Vince Chan and his team are making it easy to do so. —Scott Dagostino