People pose for a picture next to an ATP sign before the Shanghai Masters launch ceremony in Shanghai this week

Shanghai (AFP) - China will next week host its first major international sports event since abandoning strict Covid rules, heralding the return of elite competition to the country after more than three years.

With the exception of last year’s Beijing Winter Olympics, which took place in a “bubble”, almost all global sport ground to a halt in China after the pandemic emerged there in late 2019.

But China abruptly lifted its “zero-Covid” policy in December and world sport organisations will be eager to relaunch lucrative tournaments in the world’s second-largest economy.

The Sudirman Cup team event, one of the biggest tournaments in the badminton calendar, begins on Sunday in Suzhou, near Shanghai.

Women’s WTA and men’s ATP tennis makes a full-throttle return to China later this year while the Asian Games in Hangzhou – postponed from last year – will take place in the autumn.

Major athletics and snooker competitions are also scheduled, although Shanghai’s Formula One Grand Prix will not take place until next year. Golf is another set to return.

“The pandemic years have not been easy for any of us,” Badminton World Federation president Poul-Erik Hoyer-Larsen said, calling the return a “significant moment”.

“China has such a vibrant association with badminton that it still feels odd that we’ve missed out on Chinese tournament hosting for so many months,” Hoyer-Larsen added.

At this year’s Sudirman Cup the stakes are even higher because it will count towards qualification for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Tennis is returning to China in a big way from September.

On Monday the ATP hailed the beginning of a “new era” as it launched an expanded Shanghai Masters, boosting the prize money to make it the richest sports event in Asia.

Women’s tennis will also return to the country after Covid and having abandoned a boycott over concerns about the safety of Chinese player Peng Shuai.

Domestic sports competitions mostly continued through the worst of Covid in China.

- China looks to ‘unleash’ -

Defending champions China are the most successful team in Sudirman Cup history, having won the biennial tournament 12 times.

“One of the reasons that badminton has continued to grow and prosper despite the challenges of the pandemic is the widespread acceptance it enjoys in China,” said Hoyer-Larsen, noting the “ever-growing numbers of both competitive and recreational-level players”.

“The fanbase too has skyrocketed and the thirst for badminton content is as rich as ever, as seen by the trending popularity of Team China and their new wave of stars,” he said.

Huang Yaqiong, half of China’s world number one mixed pair team, said they were excited to be playing at home.

“Our feelings are the same as the fans,” she said in March when the group stage draw was made.

“This is the first major tournament to be held in China after the pandemic and we are hoping that we can play a great game.”

China will face off against European champions Denmark, African champions Egypt and Singapore in Group A.

Huang’s partner playing Zheng Siwei said they were confident about their strengths going into the prestigious event.

“I think we are still very competitive and confident in each individual event to beat any opponent,” said Zheng.

“All we have to do is unleash ourselves.”

Only two other countries have ever won the Sudirman Cup – South Korea four times and Indonesia once.

But Hoyer-Larsen doesn’t rule out an upset.

“With the level of badminton improving in many countries, and with several new faces standing atop the podium recently, the time might be now to crown a new champion,” he said.