Toronto’s Changing Sport Scene

Toronto's changing sports scene

Add ping pong, cricket and kabbadi to the roster of sports gaining popularity in a city whose demographic is constantly shifting

Joe Friesen
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
Published on Friday, Aug. 13, 2010 4:11PM EDT
Last updated on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2010 11:34PM EDT

Twenty years ago, baseball was the most played sport in Canada. Today, nine people arrayed on a diamond has a faintly quaint aura, evoking the sepia tones of another era. That's just one example of how the sports Torontonians play are as sensitive to demographic change as the restaurants we frequent.

As the Greater Toronto Area absorbs hundreds of thousands of immigrants from South Asia and China[], Torontos sports scene has a lot of other balls in the air.

Cricket is hugely popular today among the growing population of Canadians of South Asian background. Table tennis, Chinas national game, is exploding in Torontos suburbs. And then there is kabaddi, an Indian village game that through the power of nostalgia and the financial muscle of Indian immigrants is now more vibrant in Canada than it is in India.

For the moment, they are niche sports and kabaddi is more significant as a spectator event than participation sport but demographics are on their side. Their impact wont be immediate or earth-shattering : table tennis wont regularly fill the Rogers Centre any time soon, and playing fields wont be re-painted with kabaddi boundaries. According to the Statistics Canada General Social Survey, immigrants are less likely to play sports than the Canadian-born.

That may be a result of their efforts to establish themselves financially in a new country, as income has a profound effect on participation. People with family incomes above $80,000 a year are twice as likely to participate in sport as those with incomes under $30,000.

But a change-up is in order. Baseball has now slipped behind basketball and soccer, globally popular games that rival the supremacy of hockey and golf in Canada. And soccer, which in 1992 was the 13th most played sport among those 15 and older, jumped to fourth by 2005, encouraged by huge waves of immigrants from soccer-mad countries.


Filip Ilijevski swats ping pong balls across the table at a limb-whirring rate of what looks like three swings per second. Only 11 years old and blessed with speed and precision shot-making, Filip is the rising star of the Chinese Canadian Table Tennis Association, a booming club established just four years ago in a Markham industrial park. Filip is one of the top young players in Canada, recently finishing among the medalists at a tournament in New Zealand.

He is practising under the tutelage of a former Chinese national team coach, who plays the role of stern taskmaster with cinematic flair slamming his paddle on the table to emphasize his demand for concentration. Its 11 a.m. on a Thursday and the CCTTA is packed. Every one of the 36 tables is in use. The air fills with the relentless pops and clicks of paddles on balls, a sound akin to being immersed in a giant vat of popping corn. Players of all ages are whooping and grunting with exertion, chasing the little white balls with metronomic dedication.

The volunteers who gave birth to the CCTTA boast of its hardwood floors, top-of-the-line tables and bright lighting. It began in 2006 as a labour of love for 15 Chinese-Canadians but has since expanded to a 10,000-square-foot table-tennis emporium, drawing players from across the city. Membership, which costs $300 annually, has grown to 700, and they expect to pass 1,000 within a year, at which point the club plans to begin Phase Three of its expansion by annexing a neighbouring warehouse space.

They point out that although Canadians traditionally confine table tennis to their basements, it is the one international game the Chinese have always dominated, and its a sport many grew up with before emigrating, playing on picnic tables, wooden doors, any flat surface they could find. Markhams population is 34 per cent of Chinese descent, according to the census; Greater Torontos roughly 10 per cent.

This sport is the culture of China, so were proud of this. Its another way of presenting Chinese culture, said Wai Kong Li, the clubs manager. It will enhance friendship between the different ethnic groups.

But as club vice-president Jeffrey Lau stresses, although the name says Chinese, its a club open to everyone. About 25 per cent of members are non-Chinese, Mr. Lau said. Many are of Eastern European background or from the Philippines, Korea or South Asia.

Immigration[] is all from Southeast and South Asia, so that will be good for the growth of the sport, Mr. Lau said.

Its growth has attracted the interest of politicians keen to reach out to Chinese-Canadian voters. Mr. Lau and the other board members say theyve heard that Stephen Harper plays table tennis. Their dream would be to host a match between Mr. Harper and Chinese president Hu Jintao. But would the Canadian Prime Minister be able to keep up with his Chinese counterpart? The clubs senior members cant contain their excitement at the thought, but theyre skeptical of Mr. Harpers chances. To illustrate the gulf in standards between the two countries, they cite a tournament they hosted where an unknown pre-adolescent provincial team player from China defeated Canadas top ranked adult. Mr. Harpers game might need some work.


The players arrange themselves for a group photo with the boredom typical of athletes anxious to start play. The power brokers of Toronto cricket and a candidate for mayor, eager to insert themselves in this multicultural tableau, step to the fore, relegating the players to backdrop.

Joe Pantalone, candidate for mayor, addresses a camera operated by his campaign staff, promising that, once elected, he will make construction of an international-level cricket facility one of his top priorities. Its the surest sign that Torontos changing demographics are having an impact on the citys sporting scene.

As the historian C.L.R. James put it, describing the infinite ways in which cricket and politics intertwine, What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?

Cricket is spreading like wildfire, according to Mohamed Shaikh, president of the Toronto and District Cricket Association. His league has mushroomed to 172 member teams this year, up from 100 teams five years ago. The Brampton-Etobicoke league has 110 teams and the Commonwealth Cricket Association, 40 teams, which adds up to more than 300 competitive teams of at least a dozen players in the GTA, and participation is growing beyond capacity.

I would still say immigration is driving the growth, people coming in from South Asian countries, Mr. Shaikh said. We still need more mainstream local participation, but its mostly new immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka.

The gentlemen of Upper Canada College and The Toronto Cricket Club who were its protectors saw it decline through much of the 20th century. Immigration from the Commonwealth, particularly the West Indies, sparked a mini-revival, but the number of West Indian cricketers in Canada is declining as immigration from that region slows. The Canadian-born children of West Indian immigrants are not taking up the game in great numbers, organizers say.

Leslie Soobrian, who came to Canada from Guyana, has poured much of his free time into running the Commonwealth Cricket Association for the last 30 years. To his mild bemusement, his own Canadian-born children never played the game.

They played the traditional sports, basketball, baseball, he said. But cricket just didnt appeal.

For the South Asians its a kind of religion, Mr. Soobrian said. Thats where all the growth is.

Corporate sponsors have certainly noticed. The Royal Bank and Scotiabank both have sponsored cricket in recent years.

What were doing with RBC is were using cricket as a cultural market, and a bit of a hedge on hockey, said Bob Stellick, who runs a Toronto sports marketing company. Hockey is a bigger-budget mainstream sport for RBC. With cricket we pick certain niches like Brampton, Surrey B.C., places in Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg where there are South Asian communities. From a corporate perspective we really want to engage our customers where theyre comfortable.

Tonights match features Brampton Masters top team versus Apollo. Playing for Brampton is Mahendra Nagamootoo, a former top international spin bowler who played 30 times for the West Indies, a cricketing powerhouse.

Its good cricket here. The elite division is really high level, Mr. Nagamootoo said. He is one of several semi-professional players who are brought in on special immigration visas every year, lending prestige to the events.

Tonight hes regularly walloping shots over the boundary for six runs. Its a style of play observers say is evolving in Canada as a reaction to municipal groundskeepers who are deaf to the needs of a cricket pitch. The grass is as long and shaggy as a hipster haircut, which means batted balls lurch to a halt if played along the ground.

Mr. Soobrian sighs a resigned sigh and gestures to a beautifully maintained, purpose-built soccer pitch across the way. He can remember when that area belonged to cricket. The soccer pitch was built thanks to a highly mobilized and politically connected Italian-Canadian community group, he says.

Cricket may get there yet.


On the Mississauga arena floor, the bare-chested gladiators parade before their match. Their powerful bodies are glossed with sweat and they gamely slap at the knee brace or shoulder harness that guards their frailest point.

In the stands, a sold-out crowd of 6,000, every one of them of South Asian origin or background, buzzes over the action. A hype man on the sideline catalogues the play in rapid-fire Punjabi. Politicians, including federal Conservative Parm Gill, challenger to MP Ruby Dhalla, works the crowd. Fans, mostly young men, line up at concession stands for runny plates of curry chicken, dal, naan and samosas.

The ancient game of kabaddi has been played for centuries on the subcontinent, but in the age of migration, players come to Canada to play for money. Today the purse is $11,000, to be divided among the winners. The tournament features six teams, one each from India, the U.S., the U.K., as well as B.C., Alberta and Ontario. Although they nominally represent those territories, most of the best players are Indian nationals who are granted special permits to enter Canada during the kabaddi season, which runs roughly from April to September. Theres even a so-called kabaddi program in the Citizenship and Immigration Ministry, according to Conservative MP Tim Uppal, who has travelled from his Edmonton riding to attend the competition.

Kabaddi is a vicious combination of tag, red rover and mixed martial arts. In this international version of the game, teams take turns sending a single player, known as a raider, into their opponents half. Four stoppers join arms and back away from the raider. His aim is to tag one and then race back across the halfway line before 30 seconds elapse to score a point. A stopper can use any means necessary to stop the raider from crossing halfway in those 30 seconds, in which case the defending team gets the point. He can slap, tackle, wrestle or throw the raider to impede him, but cant use a punch to the face. Raiders typically succeed about 70 per cent of the time.

The crowd erupts as a stopper swings a heavy arm across the chest of a raider, stopping him in his tracks. They collide and separate twice with the brief, unpleasant thud of flesh on bone before falling to the rubber mat in a writhing, clutching mass. The raider inches toward the halfway line as the crowd roars. Legs wrapped around the raiders waist, the stoppers face contorts as he tries to pull him back. Inching, pulling, tugging, crawling. The crowd grows louder as the seconds pass. The raider reaches, stretches, and just gets his hand over the halfway line. The audience deflates.

Kabaddi is primarily a spectator sport. There are six local teams in the league run by the tournament organizers, the Sports and Cultural Federation of Ontario. And their rivals at the Ontario Federation of Sports and Culture (yes, their names are quite similar) also organize tournaments. The number of active local players is probably around 100, and only a couple dozen are Canadian-born, though everyone raves about their talent.

More common are people like Inderbir Arora, a 40-year-old lawyer who came to Canada a decade ago and now lives in Brampton. He played kabaddi as a child and relishes these day-long tournaments. He says its a great irony that kabaddi is so popular in North America when its fading in India.

The community wanted to keep the traditions alive. What else can we see of home? Mr. Arora said.

He says Indo-Canadians want to hold onto something of their past and pass it on to their children, even if what they pass on belongs to an older India, one that is fast disappearing.