Shuttlecocks and Misplaced Rage at the Olympics

Hate the game, not the players
Wang Xiaoli (R) and Yu Yang (L) play a shot during their women's double badminton match against Kim Ha Na and Jung Kyung Eun of South Korea. Photograph by Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images

“You cannot do this in an Olympic Games, this is something that is not acceptable,” former British badminton silver medalist Gail Emms told the Daily Mail after four pairs of women tried to lose matches on Tuesday at Wembley Arena. “It was just disgraceful.” She was part of a chorus calling the display shameful and unacceptable. Fans at Wembley booed and chanted “off, off, off.” The outrage is understandable, especially from the fans. When you pay to see world-class athletes compete, you expect that they will. But oaths to the Olympic spirit notwithstanding, the players are not the main culprits in this scandal.

Tanking is commonplace in sports, even if you don’t count gambling corruption. In a 1982 World Cup match between West Germany and Austria, now known as the Non-Aggression Pact of Gijon, players aimlessly kicked the ball around the pitch for 80 minutes once it had been assured both would qualify for the next round. In the second-to-last game of their 1984 season, as Bill Simmons notes in The Book of Basketball, the Houston Rockets played a 38-year-old Elvin Hayes for every minute of a overtime loss in a effort to land a higher position in that summer’s draft. Depending on whom you ask, the Indianapolis Colts may have tanked their way through last season to secure star quarterback Andrew Luck in the draft. Even on the day of the shuttlecock scandal, as my colleague Chris Spillane has noted, the Japanese women’s soccer team didn’t field its best squad against South Africa because they wanted to rest. Tanking happens virtually whenever the normal incentives to win are thrown out of whack.

The Korean, Chinese, and Indonesian badminton players who were expelled from the London games had all come with the goal of winning a gold medal. No one would have questioned their Olympic spirit if they said so. On Tuesday they thought smashing the shuttlecock into the net was the best way to do that. That is a problem with the structure of the tournament. Tanking is a usually a sign that rules need to change, as they did (to varying effect) after both the 1982 World Cup soccer match and the 1984 Rockets season.

According to Italian economist Raul Caruso, who has studied this sort of match-fixing, tossing the offenders probably won’t keep it from happening again. “Even if the punishment is really tough for players who cheat in this respect,” Caruso says, “they still do it.” The better solution, he suggests, is usually to add more prizes. While it’s a tough sell at the Olympics, where a medal is everything, graduated payments for performance along the course of a tournament have been shown to make match-fixing less common.

In any case, those ready to throw stones at the expelled badminton players, one of whom has said she will quit the sport, should probably check their memories for times they may have employed some strategic slacking. Underperforming to get out from under a bad boss perhaps? When it comes to strategic failure, hate the game, not the player.

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