London • I think I can speak for everyone at Olympic Park and everyone riding the Underground and everyone on Twitter and everyone on Facebook and at least four guys at the corner pub when I blink my eyes in the rain here and say:
When it comes to creating unique scandals, the Olympics never disappoint. Wednesday morning, the Games awoke to an announcement that eight players had been expelled from the badminton tournament for hitting too many shuttlecocks into the net or out of bounds.
Of course, you and I do that all the time in the backyard — but not on purpose. The eight players here did. They deliberately hit bad shots. Doubles teams from South Korea, Indonesia and China tried intensely and doggedly to lose their matches in the round-robin portion of the badminton tournament on Tuesday. Why? To put their countries in a more favorable position on the elimination bracket when it began Wednesday.
But here’s the thing: I don’t totally blame the players for tanking.
Crowds attending the matches disagreed with me. After paying high Olympic-ticket prices, the customers at Wembley Arena were not amused to see a less than excellent effort. Boos rang out in the venerable old building, site of the boxing competition at the 1948 London Games. Technically, the players’ expulsion was for “not using one’s best efforts to win a match.” And that was certainly the case.
At times, the scenes were comical. In one match, both teams were desperately trying to play horribly and lose, so players were lobbing shots underhand to set up easy kill shots for the other team — only to have the other team try to sabotage the kill shots with wayward returns. Officials issued warnings during the match, to no avail.
Other competitors were happy to see the punishments afterward.
“I think it’s really important they do something about it,” said badminton competitor Christinna Pederson of Denmark, “because we’ve been seeing it a lot. It’s a shame for our sport that all of us love so much. I can’t believe they could do it at the Olympics. It’s such a shame.”
But it could have been so easily prevented. Each sport at the Olympics sets up competition in its own fashion. Some, such as basketball and beach volleyball, create pools of round-robin teams and use the results to discard less talented teams and seed a later elimination tournament. Others, such as judo, go immediately into an elimination bracket without the round robin.
In the past, badminton has had the same format as judo. But at these Games, the decision was made to set up a round-robin format before moving on to a 16-team bracket. All of the expelled teams had clinched spots in the bracket. So they were looking ahead. They were trying to get an edge. Isn’t that what athletes do?
Eric Thohir, the chief of Indonesia’s Olympic delegation, more or less used that logic when he was asked about his team’s bad form and used the tactical “My friend Billy did it first” excuse.
“China has been doing this so many times, and they never get sanctioned,” Thohir told The Associated Press. “On the first game when China did it here, the badminton federation didn’t do anything. If that happens, it is a warning for everyone.”
Also weighing in was Lin Dan, the defending Olympic men’s champion, who said that the tank jobs were definitely not in the spirit of competition but added that abandoning the round-robin portion of the tournament would solve the issue: “Whoever sets the rule should make it knockout so whoever doesn’t try will just leave the Olympics.”
Lin Dan, you are a smart man.
If the badminton federation didn’t want intentional slackers, it shouldn’t have encouraged them to be slacking intentionally.
For example, the expelled Chinese team was clearly attempting to manipulate the 16-team bracket so that it would not have to face the other Chinese team until the final instead of the semifinals. This would have made it possible for China to win a gold and silver medal rather than a gold and bronze. Wouldn’t you do that for your teammates? For your country?
Over the years, history shows that if you give teams the chance to benefit from losing, they will lose. It happens in other sports. It has happened in Major League Baseball during the season’s final week.
I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. Teams have thrown weak lineups on the field if they have already clinched a playoff spot and, by losing to an inferior team, might keep a superior team out of the postseason. Late next month, with the new postseason setup involving two wild-card spots instead of one, there’s an even better chance the dynamic will occur.
Fans of the Golden State Warriors, meanwhile, saw their team’s suspiciously limp attempts to win at the end of last season with the mission of obtaining a lottery draft pick. The mission succeeded.
If you are scoring the badminton scandal at home, the guilty parties consisted of South Koreans Jung Kyung Eun, Kim Ha Na, Ha Jung Eun and Kim Min Jung. China’s team, the gold-medal favorites, consisted of Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang. And the banished Indonesian duo was Greysia Polii and Meiliana Jauhari.
Don’t make me spell all those names again. But wherever those names appear in the future, they will signify badminton shame. I’m not sure that’s fair or just. What about the brainy officials who created a system that would reward losing? Why not simply refund the ticket money to the people who witnessed the horrible non-competition this week, allow the expelled players back into the Olympic tournament with suspensions to take place at the next big event, change the rules for the next Games and carry on as usual?
I can’t believe I am actually writing these words. But we learned Wednesday that shuttlecock justice can be brutal. It should also be fair.