When most people think of badminton, they think of a backyard game played while waiting for the summer barbecue to fire up.
Most often, a celebration of one sort or another is involved.
During the Arctic Winter Games, however, competition badminton is different.
It’s athletic, it’s fast and it’s serious well, serious for the most part.
Before semifinal juvenile mixed doubles matches got under way Friday morning, team members, coaches and officials surprised umpire Kathy MacAskill with an impromptu birthday celebration.
One official brought a bud vase with flowers, another brought a cake, and although the birthday celebrant is from Northwest Territories, Mia Rasmussen of Team Greenland sang “Happy Birthday” in Greenlandic.
MacAskill was not quite sure what the words were, but said, “It had a nice melody.”
Assured that this, like most events in these Games, would be fully laden with a friendliness and camaraderie unseen in professional sports, the badminton matches were set to begin.
On court number one were Team Alberta North versus Team Alberta North and on court number two were Team Greenland against Team Greenland.
As it turned out the day before, two Greenland teams and two Alberta North teams advanced out of the preliminary rounds, pitting the best of each against the second-best.
The winning Greenland pair would then face the winning Alberta North pair in the medal round.
Others that advanced to the Friday semifinals were Team Yukon, Team Northwest Territories and Team Nunavut, which became a territory on April 1, 1999.
Team Alaska and Team Nunavik (Quebec) failed to advance.
As the players lined up for the first matches, the fact that these athletes were serious even when facing teammates across the net was readily apparent.
Gone were the friendly smiles and youthful giddiness of the players who, by Games rules, were all born after 1990.
Now they stood rigidly glaring through the badminton net at their opponents.
The server in the forecourt Mia Rasmussen stood poised with one leg cocked, racquet positioned just above the raised knee, awaiting the drop of the shuttle, which would be served in a slight underhand motion.
Her teammate, Taatsi Pedersen, stood behind with his racquet raised overhead as did the opponents awaiting the serve and imminent return.
As the volleys issued a soft “pock” sound, unlike the “pock pock” of a tennis match, the action moved rapidly with players employing various strategies to get the shuttle to where the opponent wasn’t.
“These are the 100-yard dash (sprinters) of the winter games,” said Paul Canarsky, Team Alaska coach now in his fifth Arctic Winter Games.
Though his team did not advance to the semifinals, Canarsky said, “The kids played hard and played fair.
“They’re 50 percent better today, Friday, than when we got here at the beginning of the week,” he said. “It’s been like living a clinic all week long.”
“This week is also good training for officials,” said Ron Graf, head referee over all badminton officials.
“We get to see a lot more matches than we do in a normal weekend meet,” Graf said.
Unlike in Alaska, badminton is a school sport in Canada, replacing summer tennis.
Canarsky said all members of Team Alaska this year are from the Fairbanks-North Star Borough School District.
In some years, badminton players come from Anchorage and Juneau, as well. There has been no badminton interest on the Kenai Peninsula that he is aware of.
“We’re seeing some very strong, well-trained athletes,” said referee Graf.
He should know.
This is his ninth Arctic Winter Games as a badminton official. Prior to that, he played volleyball in three Arctic Winter Games.
“I went to my first Arctic Winter Games as a volleyball player in Fairbanks in 1982,” he said. “That’s where I met my wife. She was a badminton player for Northwest Territories.”
Now, Laurell Graf is the badminton coach for Team Northwest Territories, also playing in the semifinals.
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