I haven’t played badminton for over forty years. I did grow up in a town that was somewhat mad for the sport and I was good enough to make it to the junior nationals several times. If memory serves, I got a trophy (whether it was the runner-up or the title I don’t now remember) for 13-and-under mixed doubles, probably in 1966 at Wilmington, Delaware. Don’t bother to hunt that up, it isn’t important to me. What it means is that I’m not one to ridicule the sport, I know exactly how demanding it is. And my brother is still active in the senior brackets, one of the few Anglos competing with the Asians that dominate the sport.
So even though I’m not following the Olympics, it was inevitable that I was swiftly informed of the scandalous developments on the courts at London. Four women’s doubles teams (two from South Korea, one from China, one from Indonesia) were disqualified from the games for throwing their matches. The Badminton World Federation ruled that they were guilty of “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport”, defined as “not using one’s best efforts to win a match”. The world seems to agree that this was bad form and poor sportsmanship.
Bovine excrement! The eight ladies were doing exactly what they should have been doing in the face of the cockeyed rules in force. The tournament organization was divided into three rounds. First came the qualifying round, which determined the eight teams for the rest of the tourney, during which winning each match was good strategy. Last came the elimination round, in which winning each match is essential. In between was a “round robin” round which determined who played whom among the eight teams in the final rounds.
One Chinese team, Zhao Yunlei and Tian Qing, lost to Denmark in a close match. (At least the first game was close: 22-20, 21-12.) At this point, the other Chinese team, Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang, would have been in the same bracket of the elimination round as the first Chinese team. That is, they would meet their compatriots in the semi-final round at the latest, and only one of them could compete for the gold. So they intentionally, and fairly obviously, threw their match against a South Korean team which, in turn, was trying to throw the match as well, presumably for the same reason.
In other words, for at least four different teams, the winning strategy was to lose at least one match in the round robin. Therefore, by rational standards, competing to the best of their ability in the tournament meant playing very badly at least once. This is not a moral question, this is a strategic question. And this isn’t a “grey area” in sportsmanship, although it’s a disaster for the fans who paid good money to watch the round robin round. This is not something that should lead to disqualification of any of the players, it’s something that should lead to disqualification of some of the organizers. The players came to play, they came to win, and the first thing they doubtless did was to learn the rules of the tournament. I certainly remember huddling around the tournament brackets at every tournament, before I even found the locker room. (Yes, I was once svelte enough to play competitive badminton. I was thirteen.) It’s not the players that were wrong, it’s the rules.
I don’t expect a lot from those who organize sporting events. I am reminded of something William Simon, then president of the US Olympic Committee said of the IOC president: “Explaining something sensible to Lord Killanin is akin to explaining something to a cauliflower. The advantage of the cauliflower is that, if all else fails, you can always cover it with melted cheese and eat it.”
If I Were King, the players would be reinstated and this tournament would be completed under the current rules. And I would direct the Olympic Committee of my imaginary country to insist that rules for future Olympiads not be written in a way that requires anything but the best effort of every player in every game. The spectators deserve much better. My cheddar and cranberry mustard sauce on cauliflower, perhaps.