China marked the return of global sport to the country Sunday after over three years, as badminton fans flocked to the opening day of the Sudirman Cup in the eastern city of Suzhou.
Virtually all international sports events ground to a halt in China after the coronavirus pandemic emerged there in late 2019, with the notable exception of last year’s Beijing Winter Olympics which were held in a virus-secure “bubble.”
The Sudirman Cup — one of badminton’s biggest tournaments — is the first such competition to take place in the country since Beijing abruptly abolished its “zero-COVID” policy in December.
Thousands of maskless fans packed into Suzhou’s Olympic Sports Center, excitedly blowing horns and shouting encouragement to players in stark contrast to the empty arenas and hardline curbs of recent years.
The stakes are higher than usual at this year’s Sudirman Cup because performances will count toward qualification for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
China has won the mixed team tournament a record 12 times — more than any other country — including the last two competitions.
The hosts quickly notched a 21-3, 21-8 mixed doubles victory over Egypt on Sunday evening to seize control of their opening group stage tie.
Each tie consists of five matches that also include singles and doubles matches for both women and men.
Japan — runners-up in the last two competitions — took an initial 1-0 lead over England, while Denmark led by the same scoreline against Singapore with the world’s top-ranked men’s player Viktor Axelsen set to feature later Sunday.
Earlier, four-time champions South Korea eased to a 4-1 victory over France, with women’s world number two An Se-young dispatching Qi Xuefei 21-7, 21-14 in just 35 minutes.
Taiwan eased to a 4-1 victory over India, while Malaysia hammered Australia, 5-0.