Badminton Scandal

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.


One thought on “Badminton Scandal

  1. KFay says:

    Agree with you entirely on this one, Nate.

    This sort of thing comes up in (wait for it…) bridge all the time and has been debated for years ad nauseum. There is often a round robin stage in world championship events. And often there is a team, well ahead of the field, who has the opportunity at a late stage to dump to a weak team in order to possibly push a better team out of the knockout stage.

    Jeff Rubens, the editor of the Bridge World (bridge’s most prestigious publication), often invokes the definition of “sportsmanship” as doing everything within one’s power to win an event, so long as the action is legal.

    It seems to me that there was no overt law against dumping in the badminton case. I bet it would be extremely hard to enforce such a law even if there were one. The only reason why this case was sussed out was that both teams were attempting to dump to each other! Then they pinned a dubious conviction on them for tarnishing the image of their sport or some such nonsense. How can intelligent tactics ever be frowned upon?

    The entire incident reeks of ineptitude on the part of tournament organizers. In the article you cite, Briton badmintoner Andy Good says, “I’ve never seen any sporting event, any major event, where two players or two pairs just stood on a court and haven’t tried.” I imagine that the idiots in charge are saying similar things, but anyone who knows anything about sport only has to think back to the 1982 World Cup, Austria v. West Germany. This match is brought up in every other Rubens editorial about “sportsmanlike dumping” and was the impetus behind playing simultaneous matches in the end of group-stage play.

    One solution would be to play a double elimination stage to pare down to a knockout field, similar to post-season NCAA baseball or whatever; there are probably some number of other solutions as well. For something that is (in my mind) so common, it’s really shocking that people are surprised by this particular story at the Olympic level.

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