One Comment About the Olympics: The Disqualified Badminton Players Were Right

8 Aug

Time for another polemical entry that’s only peripherally about TV, in that the Olympics air on TV.  It’s a little late, but I want to talk about and defend the women’s badminton players who got disqualified from the Olympics for some trumped up version of “not trying hard enough”   For those who don’t know, well, that pretty much sums it up.  Because of the way the non-eliminator preliminary rounds of the Olympic badminton tournament are set up, certain competitors believed it would be to their advantage to lose games to gain better seeding going forward to the elimination segments.  The Badminton World Federation claimed that this violated the Olympic ideals and disqualified four teams.

You know what, this is total bullshit.  Let’s not fucking kid ourselves.  The Olympics, and all sports, are not about some amorphous playing-your-best standard.  They’re about winning.  Sure, those goals are intertwined 99% of the time, and I don’t mean this statement in a way that people playing their best without hope of actually winning shouldn’t be proud of themselves.  What I do mean is that, people who actually think they can win, should be focused on how to get there, rather than playing their best every second of the time, first and foremost, and they are, in all sports.  For example, teams consistently rest their best players after they’ve clinched playoff spots in team sports.  Their health is too important; winning is not the priority in those games.  Sure, you say, they’re not trying to lose, though, they rather don’t care one way or the other.  Well, occasionally in the NBA, an odd dance emerges, when, for playoff seeding, a team does activiely want to lose, such as when Dallas, who finished with the second best record (2005-06), but was second in its own division, was seeded fourth, and teams preferred the sixth spot to the fifth to avoid Dallas, even though the seed was nominally lower.  Now, of course in team sports, the way to actively lose is simply to keep your best players out of the game as much as possible, and watch as your worse players, who are still incentived to play their best in the race for playing time, lose on their own.  In individual sports with no subs, you can’t put on the scrubs and watch them lose without the ethical quandary of not trying hard enough.

Even in the Olympics, you see ethically approved not-trying-as-hard-as-you-can in swimming and track heats.  Runners and swimmers who know they’re virtually assured of moving to the final take it easy in their heats, especially towards the end.  The best teams use substitute swimmers, who won’t be participating in the finals.  You may argue here that the intention is not to lose, but rather not to care if they win, but I’d argue that’s a thin line at best.  After all, there’s no incentive for these players not to win, just not to care where they finish as long as they advance, and that’s precisely what happens.  I’d ask how do you know these players were trying to lose, in any sport, and you’d reply, “it was obvious,” which is really kind of a cop out.  Obviousness is never a good objective standard for anything.  Especially when there’s a superior alternative, which is to restructure the tournaments to incentive winning.  Major soccer tournaments made a move to play the final matches of their round robin stage at the same time to avoid situations in which the last match is between two teams who know that if they draw they both advance, and thus have no incentive to try to score.  Of course, people could have complained then that they should all be thrown out for non-competitiveness, but thankfully for the soccer players it’s far easier to bury non-trying in an 11 on 11 soccer match than in a 2 on 2 badminton match.

I admit certainly that losing for betting purposes rather than simply the long-term purpose of winning is extremely problematic for sports, and it can be very difficult to discern, but there’s the added major advantage of being able to sniff it out through changes in betting patterns.  No one is accusing the badminton players of this, but if anything, I’d add, the so-called obviousness of their not trying would belie any accusations anyway, because certainly, with the potential repercussions, any athlete would go to great lengths to avoid being accused of fixing matches for cash.

The fault here is not the badminton players at all.  In fact, the advice I’d give them is do the same thing next time, except try a little harder so they have plausible deniability, and can claim to have passed the arbitrary “trying hard enough” standard that somehow somebody in the Olympics thinks they have the ability to decide.  Were you trying 60%?  70%?  What if they were tired?  A little hurt?  Had a stomach or headache?  It is absolutely ridiculous to be asking anyone to defend how they feel.  Here’s a fucking idea – design your sport so it rewards trying as hard as you can all the time, if that’s what you want, and the players will do it.  Design your sport in a way in which losing occasionally increases their odds of medaling, and well, I say, resepect to these players for doing everything within their power to win – this was not cheating.  These athletes should certainly not be punished for thinking about the bigger prize; winning the gold medal was their primarily goal, rather than a amorphous impossible to judge standard of playing as hard as they can every match.  That’s all that one can reasonably ask from athletes.

Quick addendum:  Another not trying hard enough scandal has broken out at these Olympics, this time involving Algerian runner Taoufik Makhloufi who stopped running in his 800 meter race heat, allegedly to save strength for his bid in the 1500, in which he was more likely to medal.  Track’s governing body, the I.A.A.F., disqualified Makloufi from the Olympics, but he was reinstated after claiming injury.  A couple of track stars weighed in, on Makloufi’s side, with former medal winning sprinter Ato Boldon saying, “Anything that maximizes your chances to win a medal for your country, you should be able to do.  If I’m in the 100 and 200, and if I think I have no chance in the 100 and should keep a full tank of gas for the 200, I didn’t harm anybody by not qualifying. I didn’t keep somebody out of the next round.”  Sprinter Allison Peter added, wisely, “It’s his choice.  It shouldn’t be up to an official’s choice to judge. How do you know if I was trying or not?”

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