Teams from Japan, China, South Korea and Indonesia all tried to avoid winning at the Olympics on July 31. Japan was the only one to get away with it.
Norio Sasaki, the coach of the Japanese women’s soccer team, fielded a weaker squad against South Africa and played for a tie as the country tried to sidestep a victory that would have meant a long trip for a match with tougher opponents.
“It was the coach’s instruction that we wanted to stay in Cardiff and come second in the group,” said Japan’s Azusa Iwashimizu. “So it was difficult to play, but I understood his idea because it is something we needed to do in order to get a medal.”
In a variation of Sasaki’s plan, four pairs of badminton players from China, South Korea and Indonesia wanted to extend their chances of Olympic glory. They found themselves tossed out in a rare expulsion after casting a shadow on the ethos of the games.
The world champions and top seeds, Yu Yang, 26, and Wang Xiaoli, 23, from China, and South Korea’s Jung Kyung Eun, 22, and Kim Ha Na, 22, were warned by officials after they appeared to deliberately serve into the net. A second South Korean pair, the third-seeded Ha Jung Eun 25, and Kim Min Jung, 26, and Indonesia’s Meiliana Jauhari and Greysia Polii, 24, also were disqualified.
“Everybody is required to play their best every time they go on court,” Thomas Lund, the Badminton World Federation’s secretary general, said at a press conference.
The players’ actions drew jeers from spectators at Wembley Arena in London. They were disqualified yesterday after a five-hour meeting.
At the Opening Ceremony of the London Games on July 27, British taekwondo competitor Sarah Stevenson read an oath on behalf of her peers, promising to respect and abide by the rules of the Olympics “in the true spirit of sportsmanship.”
The International Olympic Committee, which owns the games, fiercely defends that tradition, which has helped produce a billion-dollar brand, said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
“The IOC views the Olympic Games as a piece of a larger movement, and the Olympic movement aspires to bring nations together, to reflect the core values of the brand, which is sportsmanship and competition, and ethics is certainly rolled into that,” Swangard said in a telephone interview. “This particular case strikes to the heart of that equity that the IOC works very hard to protect and preserve.”
Ethics and competition don’t always mix, according to Julian Savulescu, a director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics.
“Since when is strategy abusive to sport,” he said by e-mail. “If there is a problem, then the rules for the draw should be changed. This is typical of the puritanical moralism that is infecting sport.”
The Japanese soccer team, the Women’s World Cup champion, rested players in a 0-0 draw against South Africa in Cardiff, Wales. Japan already had qualified for the knockout round and the tie, rather than a win, means it will stay in Wales against Britain or Brazil rather than going to Glasgow, Scotland, to face France or the U.S., the team it beat for the world championship a year ago.
“Today I have replaced several of the players compared to the last match as I wanted to give a chance to all 18 players, to let them experience the Olympics,” coach Norio Sasaki said after the match.
The badminton teams also may have been trying to lose so they could avoid more difficult opponents in the quarterfinals, when their competition also moves to a knockout stage. The teams had already qualified out of the group competition, which was new in this year’s Olympics.
The teams were charged with “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 federation said in an e-mailed statement.
The federation said at a news conference it had rejected appeals from the two South Korean teams and that an Indonesian appeal had been withdrawn. Chinese Olympic officials said that they “fully respect” the expulsion of their athletes.
“The behavior of Yu Yang and Wang Xiao violated the principles of the Olympic movement and went against the spirit of fair play,” the Chinese delegation said in a statement released through the Xinhua news service. “It hurt our hearts.”
The players and head coach of the badminton team were ordered to apologize following an investigation by the delegation, Xinhua reported.
South Korea defeated China in the Group A match 2-0 to set up a meeting with another Chinese pair, Tian Quing and Zhao Yunlei. By losing, Yu and Wang had avoided playing their Chinese compatriots until the final.
Yu told journalists that she and her partner were already through and were conserving energy for the elimination stage.
“If we’re not playing the best, it’s because it doesn’t matter,” she said. “The most important thing is the elimination match.”
In 2003, Yang Wei and Zhang Jiewen were found guilty of fixing the result of their quarterfinal at badminton’s World Championship for not trying in the second game of their defeat to eventual champions and Chinese teammates Gao Ling and Huang Sui, the British Broadcasting Corp. said. Although the pair was reprimanded, no other punishment was given, the BBC said at the time.
The format of the Olympic badminton tournament was changed this year to allow spectators to see more of the top players, IOC spokesman Mark Adams said yesterday. The IOC announced last week that it expected television revenue for the 2014 Winter Games and 2016 Summer Olympics to top $4 billion.
Shawn Klein, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rockford College in Illinois who teaches a class in sports ethics, said the badminton players were being used as scapegoats by the IOC and other sports authorities.
“You have to play hard, you can’t just mail it in,” he said in a telephone interview. “But as I think about it more and what sports is, rules of the game and good sportsmanship, I started wondering when is it appropriate to kick them out of the game and is it really that wrong?”
He said such fudging of the rules was “probably a lot more widespread than we realize,” and that only the most obvious cases were penalized.
There has been at least one other disqualification of Olympic athletes for failing to compete at their fullest, according to David Wallechinsky, a historian of the games and a commentator in London for NBC Radio.
In 1924, Italian fencers were accused by judges of conspiring to help Oreste Puliti win a saber competition by having three teammates intentionally lose to him to inflate his score, Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, said in a telephone interview.
Puliti threatened to cane the Hungarian judge, Gyorgy Kovacs, and was disqualified. Puliti confronted Kovacs a few days later and the two eventually agreed to a duel.
“They fought a real duel with real swords and slashed away at each other, and then they shook hands and made up,” Wallechinsky said. “Blood was drawn.”
In 1960, also in saber, there was an accusation of a match being thrown, though judges decided it was a legitimate contest, Wallechinsky said.
Swangard, of the University of Oregon, said he understood the athletes’ reasoning in London, much like when a team in the National Football League, the most popular U.S. sport, will bench some of its key players after it has clinched a playoff spot.
“And yet there is something about the Olympics and that expectation of always giving your best that amplifies the angst in this case,” he said.