World sport returns to China after years of COVID cancellations
FILE - China's fan holds national flag before the AFC Asian Cup quarterfinal football match between Iran and China at Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on January 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)

SHANGHAI, China, (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.

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