Badminton’s black eye
Badminton, which stands with cricket as the most British of sports, conjures images of heiresses in lace playing on manor lawns that stretch to the horizon, or blond young gentlemen at Eton in blindingly white sweaters and shorts. Developed by the British aristocracy in India in the 19th century, it has traditionally been a gentleman’s — sorry, gentleperson’s — game. So when eight women players from three Asian countries did something not quite cricket at the London Olympics, it hit the cloistered organization that oversees the sport like a shuttlecock slam to the groin.
The players threw their games in an effort to face less-talented opponents in future rounds of the round-robin tournament, missing easy shots, hitting serves into the net and otherwise playing less like Olympians than kids with a backyard badminton set from Target. This didn’t just anger the crowd; it violated the precepts of sportsmanship that are supposed to guide not only badminton but all of Olympic competition. The response from the Badminton World Federation on Wednesday was to eject the eight players from the Games, generating sharp discussion and controversy.
Was it the right move? Not in light of similar behavior in other Olympic sports, and not when one considers the increasing professionalization of the Games. Moreover, it seems an unduly harsh response given that none of the ejected athletes actually broke any rules; they simply made the rational decision to tank in one game in order to get a more favorable position in the medal round. Smart strategy isn’t the same as cheating. And yet … there is something comforting, even morally uplifting, in the idea that the old values of sportsmanship still matter. Or that the principle the International Olympic Committee refers to as “Olympism” carries some weight. The problem is, it isn’t particularly fair to enforce these values in badminton when the federations that control other Olympic sports aren’t doing the same.
As The Times recently reported, very similar behavior by the Japanese women’s soccer team was met with shrugs. The players were told by their coach not to score in their game Tuesday against South Africa, because a loss or tie would give them a more winnable matchup in the next round. It’s impossible to know how often such strategizing occurs in sports such as soccer, basketball and volleyball that employ round-robin tournaments, but we suspect it has happened many times before (although games are seldom tossed as flagrantly as the ejected badminton players from China, South Korea and Indonesia tossed theirs).
No matter what the sport, many would argue that gaming the system is just part of the game. Fans boo when baseball pitchers intentionally walk a powerful batter in order to face a less-reliable hitter, but most realize that this weighing of odds and player strengths is at the strategic heart of baseball. What’s more, it’s not too surprising that Olympic values have eroded when our perception of those values has shifted so radically over time. Created as a showcase for the amateur athlete from which professionals were banned, the Games now feature such pro superstars as Kobe Bryant and Serena Williams, and few fans seem bothered.
For all that, though, there still is such a thing as Olympic values, as expressed in the IOC’s charter — which all nations participating in the Games are obliged to uphold. It includes the seven principles of Olympism, of which the first seems most germane: “Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” Presumably, these principles don’t include playing like a scrub in order to improve your tournament position.
There is an obvious technical way to solve this problem: redesign tournaments to remove any incentive for intentionally losing. The IOC could also help avoid confusion by more clearly defining what it means in Article 2 of its charter about ensuring that “the spirit of fair play prevails.” More clarity on such matters would make future punishments like the badminton ejections less surprising or unexpected.
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