Olympics: Why booting the badminton teams was the right call

Badminton's governing body kicked four women's doubles teams out of the Olympics for trying to lose. Our sports reporter argues they broke the golden rule of sport.

Andres Leighton/AP
China's Yu Yang (l.) and Wang Xiaoli talk while playing against Jung Kyun-eun and Kim Ha-na, of South Korea, in a women's doubles badminton match at the 2012 Summer Olympics Tuesday in London. Both teams have been thrown out of the Games.

Playing to lose, apparently, is not a tactic. It's a complete perversion of sport. 

At least, so said the Badminton World Federation in kicking four women's doubles teams – two from South Korea, one from Indonesia, and the world No. 1 team from China – out of the London Olympics.

From the outset, it was obvious that none of the teams wanted to win, dumping serves in the net and generally playing as though this was a Fourth of July barbecue and the brats were burning. The reason was clear: They were trying to avoid playing a top team in the next round after the world's No. 2 pair, which had unexpectedly lost earlier, busted the tournament brackets.

Losing a meaningless round-robin game would be better than losing the next match, which was in the knockout round. Or so the thinking went. 

Is that so different from basketball teams that rest their best players in a final group-stage game in order to have them ready for the knockout round? Or is it so different from being coy in a group-stage game – perhaps not showing all your tactical cards – so that, if you face the same team again when it matters more, you'll have an ace up your sleeve?  

The answer, as the BWF rightly decided, is yes, there is a huge difference. There are some fine lines in sport, but this was not one of them. 

The difference is that it is never, ever, under any circumstances acceptable to play intentionally to lose a game. 

Take an example from the Beijing Games. The Argentinian soccer team decided not to start its best player, Lionel Messi, in the final game of the group stage, because it had already qualified for the knockout round. The team was booed soundly by the Beijing crowd. But no disciplinary action was taken against the team.    

The reason: They did not try to lose. The players on the field did not shoot that ball into their own net or fall down like bowling pins whenever they got near their opponents. In fact, they won, 2-0. That is tactics.

Or take another example from last month. Spain played the USA in basketball in Barcelona in a warmup match for the Olympics. Before the game, the Spaniards hinted that they wouldn't be too disappointed if they lost. Said Pau Gasol of his Los Angeles Lakers teammate, American Kobe Bryant: "I'd like to maybe let him win tomorrow and maybe beat him in London. That would be ideal." 

Well, Spain got the first part of its wish. Team USA stuffed the Spaniards like an alley-oop in front of their own fans, possibly because Spain didn't want to give away its potential game plan in a possible gold-medal match. Should it have been warned or disciplined? 

Again, the difference is simple. Spain did not try to lose. None of the players on the court tried to play badly. In fact, the game being in Barcelona, they probably would have been overjoyed to win – but not at the cost of foolishness. 

The badminton players blamed the new tournament format used in these Games. In Beijing, every game of the badminton tournament was a knockout game – there was no round-robin stage. That eliminated the possibility of playing to lose. 

The Korean and Indonesian teams also pointed fingers like naughty schoolchildren, saying of the Chinese: "They started it." 

But all that completely misses the point. It is not the players' jobs to make up the rules, or play for the other team, just as it is not their job to call shuttlecocks in or out. It is their job to play under the rules laid out, and if the Chinese wanted to lose, their opponents should have tried to win 21-0, 21-0 to make their point as emphatically as possible and then lodged a complaint. 

Tactics acknowledge that sometimes the war is bigger than the battles. Intentionally to lose a match is to make a mockery of fair play. If the teams thought they could get away with that – at the Olympics, of all places – that was the grossest tactical mistake of all. 

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