Badminton is one sport which receives very minimal media coverage both in the UK and in most non-Asian countries. The racquet sport reached its publicity peak in the UK whilst following mixed doubles pair Gail Emms and Nathan Robertson to Olympic Silver in Athens in 2004, as well as their impressive last tournament in Beijing in 2008, but with Emms having retired there was less British interest during the London Games. The Anglo-Scottish pairing of Imogen Bankier and Chris Adcock reached the final of the World Championships in December, but failed to qualify from the group stages in the Olympics, leaving no British interest left in the competition. However, Badminton still managed to reach the headlines – but not for the right reasons.
On Tuesday, 30th July, two matches in the Women’s Doubles event were booed throughout their duration as all eight players, including the Chinese top seeds, purposefully lost points. They served into the net and made simple mistakes blatantly purposeful in order to lose their games. Why would top Olympic athletes want to lose, one might wonder? Unlike in previous Olympics, London 2012 saw the Badminton events contain qualifying groups before the knockout rounds, with the top two players or pairs from each group making the cut. In the last group matches, all four offending pairs had already qualified for the knockout stages. There was a Chinese pair playing a Korean pair to decide who won the group and who finished as runner-up. In another group, a second Korean pair competed against an Indonesian pair in the same situation. The reason that all of these pairs wanted to lose their matches is that the runners-up in those groups received easier an easier passage through the knockout rounds. The Chinese pair also wanted to try to achieve a Gold and Silver double for their national association, and the only way for them to do this was by coming second in their group.
Immediately, their actions on court created controversy. Emms, who was commentating on the Badminton action in London, was particularly infuriated with the players describing it as “absolutely disgraceful” and saying she felt they should be disqualified. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Badminton Federation (WBF) quickly met and decided that all of the pairs should be expelled from the Olympic Games. However, having discussed the events with several other international Badminton players, it seems the verdict is not by any means unanimous. One player said that she could not see anything wrong with the players’ actions, and that she herself had previously thrown matches in group stages in order to reach the furthest possible stages of competitions.
Competitive badminton is all about trying to get as far in a tournament as possible. This is especially true in the Olympics, as it does not make that much difference whether one finishes fourth or fourteenth because only three players, or pairs, are rewarded with medals. If the most likely route to a top-three place finish is by losing an early match, then surely nothing is wrong with doing so. The Olympic Games are the pinnacle of competitive badminton, and so it is perhaps of even greater importance for one to reach the furthest possible stage in this tournament than in others.
Losing a match or race on purpose is a regular occurrence in international sport, but the only difference here is that throwing a match in another sport is much more concealable. In football, hockey or rugby, a team need only make one or two mistakes or try slightly less than usual in order to lose a match on purpose; and in rowing, running or cycling, one need only to move slightly slower than usual to lose a race on purpose. However, in badminton, a player or pair must lose 42 points on purpose in order to lose a match – something much more difficult to hide. In the 1948 London Olympics, Burt Bushnell and Dickie Burnell famously won Gold in the doubles sculls event, despite having only started training together merely weeks before the event. The pair afterwards admitted to purposefully coming second in their initial heat, because it meant that they avoided racing against the Danish pair earlier than the final. They are seen as British Olympic heroes, but this is probably because their “cheating” is more easily concealable. Nigerian middle-distance runner Taoufik Makhloufi qualified for the 1500m finals in August and then provided no visible effort during his 800m heat, slowing and stopping within half a lap before going on to win the Gold medal in the 1500m final the following day. Makhloufi was initially disqualified from the Olympics as it was “considered that he had not provided a bona fide effort”, but then was reinstated in the 1500m having presented an independent medical excuse. If other competitors can lose races on purpose and still be celebrated with Olympic medals, why should the badminton players be expelled for doing the same? If the players are to be condemned for anything, it’s their poor acting skills.
The worst thing about the players trying to lose is that the spectators who had bought tickets to see the event were not entertained and may have been disenchanted by the Olympics because of this. In the United Kingdom, the Olympics were intended to “inspire a generation”, and it’s true that these eight athletes may have had uninspired some spectators. However, it is not the athletes’ jobs to entertain. Their job is to be successful and to win the tournament. In table tennis a minority of players have a defensive style, keeping the ball in play and forcing their opponents to make a mistake. On the rare occasion that two defensive players compete against each other it makes for an incredibly dull match. Still, the players are not expected to change their style of play to make the match more entertaining for the spectators because that is not their job.
Furthermore, judging by the sporting attitude and setup in China, Korea and Indonesia, the players almost certainly had no say in how they acted: the fixed loss was decided by the coaches. Due to the competitive nature of the badminton setup in Asian nations, especially China, if the players are disobedient, the coaches will simply end their careers by not selecting them for international competition again – one world class player in China can very easily be replaced by another.
It therefore seems to be quite unfair that these poor players have been “expelled in disgrace”, when they are simply doing their jobs to the best of their ability. The Chinese players are merely pawns in the Chinese Badminton Association’s plans.
Image by Kenski1970