Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Playing to win: the battle or the war?

Two words that I thought I'd never hear in the same sentence: "badminton" and "scandal." And yet, here we have it:
Eight female badminton players were kicked out of Olympic Games over twin charges of "not using one's best efforts to win a match" and "conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport"...

The Badminton World Federation held a closed-door hearing on the matter in the aftermath of events on Tuesday night at Wembley Arena. Television images showed clips of the players in question going through the motions and appearing to "tank" in order to get a more favorable draw going forward...
Spectators booed the players, and some demanded refunds. At one point, the referee took to the court to warn the players, threatening disqualification.
Are you thoroughly disgusted yet? Because of the group play format in this year's Olympics for badminton, top teams knew they would be going to the elimination rounds, but based on how they finished in the round robin part, their next opponent could vary drastically. Four teams--two women to a team--got the boot for intentionally losing matches, including  the current world champions from China, Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang, who apparently were attempting to avoid playing fellow countrymen in the next round.

This is kind of understandable, actually. You don't want to play against a team from your own country early in a tournament; when you're playing for a medal, it's a different story. Still, fans paid money to see these matches and they--the fans--probably deserved to see honest efforts from players for that money. Right?

But consider this: professional sports teams all over the world don't always put their best foot forward, though people are shelling out significant jingle to see games (or matches). This is especially true for leagues with a playoff system. How many times has an NFL team--that has locked up it's playoff berth and position--rested top-tier players for a final game? Too many times to count, right? Such is the way of things in the NHL and the NBA, as well.

Of course, the teams aren't technically tanking the game; the players on the field (or the court, or the ice, or the what-have-you) are playing to win and the coaches are coaching to win, just not with the best team possible to make that happen. So, there's definitely a difference here, something more than a fine line but less than a "two very different situations" line.

Well, what about soccer (football)? On Tuesday, the women's Olympic team from Japan had a game with South Africa. The game ended in a scoreless tie, thus giving the Japanese a second place finish in their group (they would have won the group with a win) and a next round match against the team from Britain or Brazil--and no travel--as opposed to playing the French or U.S. squad with travel. No big deal, except the Japanese coach rested his seven best players and instructed his team not to score. Clearly in his mind, a match "at home" against Brazil or Britain was preferable to the alternative.

Fans who paid to see that match didn't get what they paid for, at all. And likely, many were there to cheer on Japan. No sanctions are forthcoming against the Japanese team or its coach, however. I'd guess that this is because such strategy has been a part of international soccer for a long time; it's accepted as a legitimate strategical move, just as similar moves are accepted in the NFL and other sports leagues. After all, above all else the fans of Japan want to see their team win the Gold. I'd bet dollars to donuts that this hope trumps their feelings about one game they might have paid money to see. The other fans there, who maybe just expected to see a good game? Their tough luck, I guess.

Because not playing to win--as much as the IOC would like to think otherwise--is very common in situations where a win is not absolutely necessary. Today, the men's team from--once again--Japan played to a scoreless tie with Honduras. That result put them both in the next round. If either one had won the game outright, the other would have been eliminated. I watched the game and both teams clearly were trying to win...until the latter stages of the game. At that point, both teams became overly cautious, to the extent that for the last several minutes of the game, the Japanese players kicked the ball around their own end and Hondurans made no move to go after the ball. Both had accepted the tie; neither wanted to attack, for fear of giving up a goal on a breakaway counter-attack.

In my mind, this was sound play, legitimate play, given that the goal of both teams was to advance to the next round. And once again, we have a line differentiating strategies: that of the Japanese women's team setting out to not win and that of both men's teams in the above game recognizing their best way forward in the course of the game.

But the question is, are these lines meaningful? Though these various situations and strategies can be differentiated, are some definitely wrong while others are not? All reflect an assumption: it's okay to not try one's best to win an individual contest if doing so can help win a championship or a medal. Or: it's okay to lose a battle in order to win a war.

If we are going to idolize sports and our champions therein, if we are going to cover the "best" in glory (not to mention endorsement contracts and other monetary benefits), can we really demand an adherence to a principal like that cited by the World Badminton Federation--not using one's best efforts to win a match--and applauded by the IOC?

Teams are going to do what they have to do to win. Next time, badminton teams will just have to be more clever with their tanking of games, I guess. That's the only lesson being learned here: don't make it so obvious. Because the only real fix to avoid this kind of thing is to get rid of all group and round robin-type play, to make every match and contest "win or go home."

Penalizing these eight women players by kicking them out of the Olympics was--in my opinion--a horrible mistake that serves only to justify the smug self-satisfying delusions of officials who like to pretend it's all about competition, not about winning.

Cheers, all.


  1. Au contraries, mon frere. It's all about money, which by extension means it's all about sponsors. And sponsors aren't going to put up money for events that audiences aren't going to watch because athletes are purposefully tanking them.

  2. Again, that just means the athletes will learn to do a better job tanking matches. Or perhaps they'll just forfeit a match and cite an injury or the all-purpose flu...

  3. Stupid autocorrect. Contraire.

  4. Dude, I thought you were being clever: "contraries" like "canaries" like the birds in badminton... :)

  5. I concur, a format change is needed, only good solution to the problem. I don't think disqualifying them was a mistake, certainly they could of handled it better and punished China early on when they first did it, but they were warned/black carded ect.