Doing the Wrong Thing Badly

A Ramble on the Badminton

By now the story is a long day old that eight female badminton players, some of them among the foremost badminton players on the planet, have been disqualified from the London Olympics for not bothering to pretend they care. To the somehow debated issue of whether they were wrong to have tanked has been added the vexing question of whether their real crime was merely an unwillingness to cover it up.

Their crime, such as it is, is now notorious. In order to achieve optimal quarterfinals against weaker teams, several stronger teams tanked their final round robin matches. Furthermore, they did it in a manner that was obvious even to the thousands of people watching, hardly any of whom were actual badminton fans. The scenes were unquestionably comical. As an already restive crowd went collectively bananas, glassy-eyed athletes flaccidly bunted shuttlecocks into the net, which even I could see was marginally less entertaining than badminton conducted at full throttle. Some have suggested that the glassy-eyed athletes are not to blame, since they were clearly just following team directions. The true culprit, apparently, is the round robin format that not only facilitated this outcome, but somehow encouraged it. The fault for a weakness of character apparently lies with the circumstances that test it.

I am slightly bemused by this line of reasoning, by the contention that the athletes are blameless, even though tight shots of their faces revealed them to be almost idiotically guileless as it transpired. The indelible impression was that none of the eight believed they were doing anything wrong. Why wouldn’t you throw an unimportant match in order to elevate your chance of winning an important one later? Following that reasoning, if you are going to throw the match, why not do so quickly? Why waste time and energy? Surely it’s all about the medals? And anyway, they were just following team orders.

They’ve since changed songbooks, and are now singing appropriately contrite tunes. Reigning Olympic champion Yu Yang has allegedly quit the sport in shame, or in protest. But, at the time, as the admittedly threadbare veil of innocence was being peeled away to reveal the dull realpolitik hunched beneath, the faces of the eight girls couldn’t have looked more innocently indifferent had they been powerfully drugged, which in a way they were. Such considerations were not sufficient to mollify the crowd, which grew vociferously wrathful as each match spiralled into thudding absurdity, well beyond the normal degree of disgruntlement one might expect from a group of people who hadn’t been able to get tickets to anything better than the badminton. Even tickets to the badminton aren’t cheap, so it’s understandable that one might feel upset when they turn out to be worthless.

I don’t imagine anyone holds the IOC up as the nonpareil of virtue, but little is achieved when we blame them for inadvertently providing the context for temptation, rather than those who readily succumb to it. Virtue untested is no virtue at all – by extension the same holds true for sportsmanship – and as tests go this one was hardly severe. The fact that this particular test found the offending players entirely wanting does not infer that they were therefore operating within a moral crucible. None of these players was forced to choose which of their children would live or die. They just had to try or not.

The round robin format invariably throws up these moments, and athletes with even more at stake than a badminton medal generally make good choices, or at least go to some effort to disguise their bad choices. Tennis fans can think back to the last few matches in the round robin phase of last year’s World Tour Finals, which were conducted amidst a cloying miasma of cynicism. Many tennis fans had been sure that Janko Tipsarevic would tank his match against Djokovic, in order to ensure that his friend would progress safely to the semifinals. Instead Tipsarevic fought out a rare win over his higher-ranked compatriot, and ensured that Djokovic’s majestic season ended with a rare loss. The next match between David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych was similarly fraught. On the other hand, readers can no doubt come up with examples of matches that were tanked, and yet remained entertaining and good-spirited.

For beyond the moral problem of right and wrong lurks the practical one that the badminton players didn’t even bother to hide what they were doing. They could have at least tried to make it look convincing, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a sufficient effort in this respect would have helped them escape censure. Lack-of-best-effort rules are sadly necessary in most sports, even amateur ones, but most athletes only suffer sanctions when they make little to no effort at all. If nothing else, it was offensive from a strictly technical perspective, especially for a fan of tennis, a sport that boasts some acknowledged masters in this area. Here is Andre Agassi:

But losing a match on purpose isn’t easy. It’s almost harder than winning. You have to lose in such a way that the crowd can’t tell, and in a way that you can’t tell – because of course you’re not wholly conscious of losing on purpose. You’re not even half conscious. Your mind is tanking, but your body is fighting on . . . The deliberately bad decisions are made in a dark place, far below the surface.

By making their deliberately bad decisions consciously under Olympic floodlights, the disgraced badminton players foolishly dispelled any shadow of doubt that might have protected them. They disqualified themselves. One has to imagine that the Badminton World Federation would have grasped at any half-plausible excuse not to suspend them, since doing so hardly does the Games any favours. By putting on a decent show, at least the crowd might have been entertained. Fans will put up with a lot, but they won’t put up with the certainty of a fix, especially not one conducted so brazenly and disdainfully. Think back to May 2002, and the widespread outrage when Rubens Barrichello submitted to team orders to let Michael Schumacher cross first at Spielberg, in order that the German might secure the Drivers’ Championship. Everyone who was interested already knew that team orders were a reality, but no one enjoyed seeing that reality writ so large. It was scrawled with a toddler’s crayon for all to see when Schumacher graciously handed Barrichello the winner’s trophy on the podium, for which Ferrari was fined a million dollars, from memory its only penalty. The lesson was clear: do it, but don’t make it so obvious.

Doing the wrong thing is bad enough, but doing the wrong thing badly is worse. And in a marginal sport such as badminton, doing the wrong thing so badly that it tarnishes the brand of the Olympic Games is inexcusable. Disqualification was inevitable.

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