Four Olympic badminton teams were disqualified this week for deliberately trying to lose matches. By losing early in the competition they hoped to gain more favorable pairings later on.
The players’ decision to throw the matches was irritating, but understandable. With an Olympic gold metal at stake, you have to expect everyone to do whatever gives them the best chance to win, within the rules. While an attitude of play-hard-no-matter-the-circumstances would have been admirable, I find it hard to fault the players.
To me the blame rests more on whoever designed the tournament structure. It makes no sense to design a tournament that rewards losing more than winning. Moreover, a baseline requirement for any competition is that the rules be clear to everyone. Clearly the teams did not expect to be disqualified for their actions, or else they would have played to win. This misconception wasn’t limited to one team; it was shared by four of the top teams in the world. The entire value of such a disqualification policy would be as a deterrent. Springing it on the teams after the fact did no good to anyone.
The players lost the opportunity to compete after years of training; the fans didn’t get to see some of the top teams in the world perform; and the Olympics and the badminton federation have to wade through an embarrassing scandal. All of these bad outcomes arose directly from the ill-conceived structure of the competition. Next time around the powers-that-be in badminton need to be more careful to design a competition that aligns incentives with competitive play and to make the rules clear to everyone.