Olympic hypocracy? Who should be punished for not trying to win?

August 1, 2012

The big news of the day in the Olympics is the removal of 8 badminton athletes from the games, including 4 South Koreans, 2 Chinese, and 2 Indonesians.  This year, Badminton was reformatted from a knockout tournament to group play, with teams then qualifying for knockout rounds based on their group play.  Those in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) said that this would be to improve the quality of play, and are already noting that it led to some incredible match-ups that one would not normally see this early into the tournament.  That may be true, but it also led to several teams realizing that the best strategy for them to advance in the knockout stages was to actually lose on purpose in the group stages.  Thus, the 4 pairs mentioned above were kicked out of the Olympics after not giving their all in matches.  The BWF, London Olympic Games Organizing Committee (LOGOC), and even fans pronounced this a great move as they said it went against the laws and spirit of the game.  Specifically, the BWF says that all players must give full effort in matches they play in.  One begs to ask: what exactly is “full effort”?  They also said that this may be a match-fixing mess waiting to happen, as teams found that the best way to avoid tough opponents in the knock-out rounds was indeed to lose.  One game in particular stands out with a Chinese team and South Korean team both trying to lose.  There is clearly a lack of effort, and the Chinese team celebrates with a high-five after losing the match.  The crowd realizing wait they have just seen, responds with very loud booing, and badminton became the headline of the Olympics today, but for all the wrong reasons.

At the same time, the Japanese women’s soccer national team employed very similar strategies in their final group stage match against South Africa.  Japan’s coach Norio Sasaki had already hinted in the Japanese media that 2nd place would be the goal to move through qualification for two reasons: the team would not have to travel for the knock-out round, and they would also be to avoid Brazil most likely.  Japan fielded a squad with 7 new members on the field, and despite enjoying a great deal of opportunities, couldn’t put one in the back of the net.  It was even said that Sasaki gave instructions to just run the match out to a 0-0 draw in the 2nd half when they knew that they were in the clear for 2nd place in their group.  So Japan’s master plan seemed to be working… until the Great Britain women managed a famous 1-0 victory against Brazil.  All of the sudden Japan’s plan has backfired and while they don’t have to travel, they are facing Brazil in the quarterfinals.

In the end, the LOCOG, IOC and FIFA said that Japan will not face any potential charges for not trying to score, as they did not violate any rules of conduct.  So for football (soccer) you don’t need to try, but for Badminton you do.  Someone explain this to me.

The lesson of the day seems to be to put full-effort into your matches as you never know what may happen.  However, it may also indicate a need for better scheduling systems, and further analysis of whether pool play or group stages really are better than knock-out tournaments.  If a federation designs a competition where there is incentive to lose on purpose, is it really the fault of the athletes who understand the system and do their best to try and get as far as they can in the tournament?  Purists would say that the athletes must give their all, but wouldn’t it also make sense to have competition designed to illicit such response from athletes?

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