Road To The Olympic Games

Athlete won't be silenced

A feature about Anna Rice, a human rights advocate and Canada's top badminton player, heading to China to play in the Olympics.

Canadian badminton player Anna Rice won't be compromised on or off the court

 

Anna Rice says that travelling the world to compete in badminton tournaments opened up her eyes to human rights issues. ((Georgios Kefalas/Associated Press))

 

Anna Rice arrived in China in July 2007 with chills, shakes, nausea and a fever of 102. She didn't know what to do, and, worse, she was alone.

The Canadian badminton player had landed in Chengdu, a city of more than 10 million that is the capital of Sichuan province in west central China. She was there for an Olympic qualifying tournament, but badminton wasn't uppermost on her mind.

"I just felt so sick," she said.

While players from other countries had coaches, doctors and even video analysts to support them, Canadian players didn't have such luxury. "I show up and it's just me," said the 27-year-old. "We're our own everything."

At a time when many may have retreated home (she ended up in the hospital), the 5-foot, six-inch, 135-pound Rice remained undeterred, returning to the court less than a week later in Malaysia. It wasn't surprising to those who know her.

Sense of adventure
Rice worked with Canada’s Bobby Milroy, left, of the Badminton Players Federation, to raise money for Right to Play Switzerland. Milroy and Rice presented a cheque to the organization at a Swiss badminton tournament. ((Photo courtesy of the Badminton Wilson Swiss Open tournament))
"She's got such a sense of independence, a sense of adventure, and a willingness to go into uncharted territory," said her mom, Dianne. "She's so determined."

This year alone, that determination has taken the Vancouver native to more than 20 countries to compete in 22 tournaments. She's number one in Canada, which secures her ticket to Beijing. Canada has never won a medal in badminton, but Rice, who has defeated three opponents in the top 10, hopes to change that.

"If I perform my best, I have a chance," she said.

But there's more to the Canadian athlete that's drawing attention. She's a human rights advocate, and just as she's unwilling to bend as player, she won't compromise her political beliefs, even as an Olympian heading to China. 

'I want my views heard'
China's Zhang Ning, left, kisses her gold medal at the 2004 Athens Games, as teammate Zhou Mi looks on. The girls played each other in the semifinal match. Their coach thought Ning would have a better chance in the final, so ordered Mi to lose the game. Zhang won the final, and Mi eventually quit the Chinese team. ((Goh Chai Hin/Getty Images))

"I'll be open and honest. I want my views to be heard, but without offending," she said. "I think Chinese citizens are entitled to know my opinion and I would feel more uncomfortable if I wasn't saying anything. That would seem hypocritical."

For the past seven years, the UBC graduate has been training on and off in Denmark, a badminton hotspot, to improve her game. Of equal importance, however, has been on-going work for her master's degree in a human rights related field. Inspired by the impact of sport in society, she says her ultimate goal is to "give a voice to people who face injustice."

What most concerns her about China, she says, is the country's heavily restricted access to information.

"For example, that someone living in China couldn't get access to the story you're going to write," she said. "Having the ability to make your own opinions, you need full information."

Though Rice is not yet in Beijing, she's learning firsthand that life in China is a world away from the freedoms enjoyed in Canada. For example, as an ambassador for "Right to Play," a Canadian-based international organization that promotes sport for development, Rice approached Chinese athletes about volunteering for the organization and becoming fellow Athlete Ambassadors. The response, however, was that they "weren't allowed."

Never walks from controversy

"It was naïve of me to think they could even decide for themselves," she said.

Though Rice was initially unsure about the decision to give China the Games, she hopes there will be a positive outcome.

"The fact that these issues are being pushed into the mainstream has pushed politicians to act," she said.

She is quick to denounce the notion that athletes should boycott the event.

"How does walking away from discussion do anything?" she asked.

She's never walked away from controversy. Frustrated by unequal prize money for males and females in the international badminton circuit, she actively supported the Badminton Players Federation in fighting for gender fairness.

 "It was only a marginal difference, but it was symbolic," she said.

Thanks in part to Rice's efforts, male and female badminton players around the world are now equally compensated for their winnings. The change came into effect in January of this year.  "Seeing that happen was really inspiring. It showed me that social change can happen through sport," she said.

Match-fixing in China

Another issue plaguing her sport is the rise of match fixing. This past March, China's head badminton coach publicly admitted that a game between two Chinese athletes at the Athens Olympics had been fixed.

The move to rig the women's singles semi-final event came when a Dutch player won the other semi-final, sending her through to the final. Realizing that one of the Chinese players would have a stronger chance against the European' s style of play, the Chinese coach ordered the other girl to throw the match.

"If that's not against the Olympic spirit, I don't know what is, " Anna said. "They clearly don't see it as cheating. We need to have discussion on it."

Despite the political and controversial distractions swirling off-court, the athlete— her boyfriend and fellow badminton player Bobby Milroy calls her a "tough, Canadian lumberjack" competitor— says her priority in Beijing will be to compete.

"When China first got the Games, there were only two events that sold out right away— the opening ceremony and badminton. It's huge in China," Rice said.

She may be from a country where badminton is mostly played in gym class, but her resolve—  the same one that saw her persevere in China last summer— remains strong.  "I want to win the first medal for Canada in badminton," she said. "I'm a long shot, but stranger things have happened."

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