Eight badminton players representing three countries have been disqualified from the 2012 Olympics. Athletics governing bodies, badminton champions, fans, and casual observers have flooded the web with sanctimonious denouncements of these players. Are the disqualified badminton players really deserving of disqualification and drowning in a tidal wave of insults or did the BWF (Badminton World Federation) just buy into a mindless tournament structure?
The players were not caught betting on the games, doping, or even hurling vulgar insults at the officials (at least before the disqualifications were handed down). Rather, they were caught losing, on purpose. This sounds scandalous enough, but a moment’s thought and a little investigation leaves one wondering whether the players or the rules are to blame.
One interpretation is that players were trying to set up the most favorable positioning possible for the most important matches, those that lead to the medals podium. This motivation might be true of all four disqualified teams. Another angle alleged against the Chinese and the South Koreans (but not the Indonesians) is that they were trying to maximize their country’s medals by avoiding a match up against another team from their own country prior to the finals. The latter allegation seems a bit more sinister than the former because it appears to involve collusion. But both aims — winning a place on the podium and maximizing medals for one’s country — seem potentially worthy on their own merits. It is possible that the scandal is no more than fierce competitors and lovers of country using sensible strategy within the rules as written.
Analogous things happen in sports all the time and are never denounced or reprimanded. Instead competitors are regarded for their smart play and thoughtful strategy. It is not unusual, for example, for an NBA team to hold out its best players for a late-season game to allow its stars to rest for the far more important playoffs games, even if this self-imposed disadvantage means falling short of a win in that particular game.
In baseball, a pitcher will intentionally and blatantly walk a champion slugger rather than attempt to strike him out or get him out on a fly ball in order to set up a more likely strike out or pop fly when matched up against the next batter in line.
In the most recent Super Bowl, the New England Patriots intentionally gave up a touchdown late in the game and the Giants, upon realizing what was happening a little too late, tried unsuccessfully not to score. The Patriots viewed the pending touchdown as highly likely and wanted more time to respond while the Giants wanted to run time off the clock before taking the lead.
Each of these cases has differences when compared with each other and when compared to the so-called badminton scandal. Yet they also have an important similarity. In each case, the team might lose or risk losing a given battle (a strikeout in baseball, a touchdown in football, or even a game in basketball) in order to set up their best possible chances to win the war. The major differences between the various examples surround the definitions of “battle” and “war”. In the baseball example, the battle is a single batter and the war is the game. In badminton, the battle happened to be a match, and the war was a position on the medals podium. Are they really so different?
Scandalous or not, the outcome could have been avoided with superior tournament structure. ESPN.com summarized the root of the so-called scandal as follows:
Teams blamed the introduction of a round-robin stage rather than a straight knockout tournament as the main cause of the problem. The round-robin format can allow results to be manipulated to earn an easier matchup in the knockout round.
Not only is the round-robin stage subject to manipulation, once manipulation is suspected, it places a governing committee in the position of divining a competitor’s intent to lose. Declaring a person’s state of mind can be a tall order and subject to plenty of controversy. In this case the poor quality of play was blatant (much like a pitcher intentionally walking a batter), but what about those aspiring badminton players who might show up to future competitions with improved acting abilities (NBA players and Soccer players have perfected “the flop” to draw a foul, for instance). The WFB can avoid this quandary simply and altogether with a tournament structure that can’t be manipulated so easily. The structure is simple, if you lose, you’re out.
There is a silver lining for the much-ignored world of badminton. In fact, outrage over the scandal might be the best thing to happen to badminton since birdies. A few hours ago, most of the world’s Olympics-observers would probably be hesitant to say that badminton is an Olympic sport. That is no longer the case, and now it is just possible that the badminton finals might even make television…perhaps.