London Olympics badminton scandal: Is it always wrong to lose on purpose?

LONDON — Badminton is not the sort of game that usually makes headlines or sparks passionate debate.

But a dust-up in this small, overlooked sport has drawn international scrutiny this week, raising one of the more compelling questions of the 2012 London Olympics:

Is it all right to lose on purpose in the pursuit of ultimate victory?

PHOTOS: Olympic badminton controversy

This ethical quandary stems from an unlikely set of events by which four doubles teams tried to throw their round-robin matches to put themselves in better position for the subsequent knockout round.

The crowds at Wembley Arena booed loudly as the players appeared to dump serves into the net and swat reasonably simple shots astray.

After a series of emergency meetings that lasted into Wednesday morning, officials ejected the eight athletes from China, South Korea and Indonesia from the competition.

"This was an important issue to deal with swiftly," said Thomas Lund, secretary-general of the Badminton World Federation. "Frankly, it hasn't taken that long."

But the punishment has not settled what one sports ethicist described as an "iffy moral issue."

"Was this against the rules?" said Jay Coakley, author of "Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies." "It's something we have to decide on a case-by-case basis."

PHOTOS: London Olympics, Day 5

Fans seem to understand when Michael Phelps holds back during a preliminary race in swimming, finishing just fast enough to qualify for the final. Officials don't suspend anyone when a playoff-bound team keeps some of its starters out of a meaningless game.

At these Olympics, the coach of the powerful Japanese women's soccer team instructed his players not to score in their final group game Tuesday against South Africa, according to numerous reports. The 0-0 tie gave Japan a more favorable matchup in the next round.

Soccer's international federation said it would not take action.

Because of the way the badminton draw played out, those players knew that if they entered the knockout round with a lower seeding, they could avoid facing a talented team right off the bat.

Officials deemed it a case of "not using one's best efforts to win a match" and "conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport."

Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang, the top-seeded pair from China, were ousted. So were Greysia Polii and Meiliana Jauhari of Indonesia; Jung Kyung-eun and Kim Ha-na of South Korea; and another South Korean team, Ha Jung-eun and Kim Min-jung.

"It's depressing," Sebastian Coe, a former Olympian and chairman of the London organizing committee, said about the matches. "Who wants to sit through something like that?"

Athletes had similar reactions.

"Oh my," tennis star Serena Williams said. "Winning at all costs means absolutely nothing. If you win by cheating, for me I would never feel good about that."

Questions of gamesmanship and ethics are nothing new to the Olympic movement.

At the 1924 Paris Games, a Hungarian judge accused three Italian fencers of losing on purpose to teammate Oreste Puliti so he could more easily advance in the sabre competition. Puliti threatened the official and was disqualified.

That irate fencer then challenged the judge to a duel with real swords. His challenge was accepted.

"Of all the stories of controversy, that's my favorite as far as how spectacular it is," said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, who detailed the incident in his "The Complete Book of the Olympics." "I think [badminton officials] did the right thing in this case. But they're probably going to be under pressure to change the format."

People in and around the sport had questioned the use of round-robin play, suggesting it might encourage sneaky maneuvers.

In a round-robin format, individuals or teams are put together in several groups, each playing the others in their group. Those with the best records move on to the medal round, in which any loss puts them out of the tournament. So it is possible that finishing second rather than first in one's group may enable a player to face a weaker opponent from another group in the medal round.

The federations for each sport determine the format that will be used in the Games. Other sports that use round-robin formats in the Olympics include basketball, soccer, volleyball and water polo.

"The rules allowed it," said Tomas Berdych, the world's seventh-ranked tennis player from the Czech Republic. "We have played some round-robin formats in smaller tournaments, and if somebody thinks that's good for them that they can go farther in the tournament, OK.

"I could never see myself doing that, because I know if I'm playing well and winning, I have confidence that I'm able to beat even the No. 1 player in the world. But it's simple: Don't give some guys sitting behind a table making the rules the opportunity to do this, and then nothing is going to happen. The rule-makers should think smartly and have one match, win or go home like we have, and then this isn't an issue."

At the 2006 Turin Olympics, the gold-medal-winning Swedish hockey team raised eyebrows by falling, 3-0, to heavy underdog Slovakia in a final preliminary-round game. That loss enabled the Swedes to avoid powerhouses Canada and Russia in the quarterfinals.

In a documentary, Swedish star Peter Forsberg was quoted as saying, "We did all that was needed to win the tournament. I think you can blame the whole system."

The lose-to-win strategy can apply to professional sports too.

The NBA changed its antiquated playoff seeding rules when the Clippers were accused of not giving a full effort down the stretch of the 2005-06 season. That allowed the Clippers to face the 44-victory Denver Nuggets instead of the 60-win Dallas Mavericks.

It was long rumored that Richard Williams — the father of Serena and Venus Williams — dictated who should win when the sisters played each other early in their careers. Standing on the opulent Wimbledon grounds Wednesday, Serena said those matches were "a little difficult." But she dismissed the idea of tanking in London.

"It's an honor to be here at the Olympics," she said. "No matter who you play, you go out there and do the best you can do."

Dan Cloppas, Team USA's badminton chief executive and secretary-general, echoed Williams' sentiments in a statement supporting the punishment handed down in his sport.

"Our USA Badminton athletes respect the rules and always play to win," Cloppas said.

The international federation has promised to review its round-robin format.

As for the duel that settled that disagreement at the 1924 Paris Games, historical accounts suggest there was no clear winner. After an hour of combat, the wounded men simply shook hands and walked away.

kcjohnson@tribune.com twitter.com/@kcjhoop david.wharton@latimes.com twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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