Column: Ideals, reality clash at Olympic badminton
LONDON -- In sports, as in life, there are those who bend rules, and those who cheat. They've always existed. And because of human frailties and pressure from sponsors, countries, coaches and athletes themselves for medals and trophies, they always will. But bending rules and spitting on them are not the same thing.
Olympic ideals of fair play, sportsmanship and all of that are just that -- an ideal. But the reality of the Olympic Games is that success is measured in gold, silver and bronze.
Be good sportsmen if you can but, above all, win and we will give you a shiny bauble. And because these are Olympic medals, they will bring fame and perhaps fortune, too. Winning medals changes lives. Being good sports alone rarely does. Sad, perhaps, but true.
Between the Olympic ideal and the Olympic reality is a trap that eight badminton players fell into at London 2012.
They didn't cheat.
Instead, they tried to win -- by deliberately trying to lose.
They bent the rules to breaking point. But they didn't trample on them like doped sprinter Ben Johnson at the 1988 Seoul Olympics or Fred Lorz in 1904, the New Yorker who hitched a ride by car for much of the Olympic marathon and then ran over the finish line in first place. It's not like a boxer taking a dive or a soccer player scoring in his own goal to get a fat envelope from a gambling syndicate.
Those are cheats, damned cheats.
The women badminton players from China, South Korea and Indonesia are not.
By deliberately thwacking shuttlecocks out of play or into the net, by playing so abjectly that spectators booed and hissed, "Off, off, off," the players worked not to win but to engineer losses in their last group matches. And they did that because losing could secure them more desirable matchups later in the competition, when those all-important medals are on the line.
In short, they wanted to lose to win.
Is that so wrong?
Badminton administrators suddenly all tough and zealous about a match-manipulation problem that other players said has long been an open secret in the sport decided that it was. The players didn't use their "best efforts to win a match" and that behavior was "clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport," they ruled.
And they tossed them out -- out of the competition, out of the games, like common cheats.
This was a train wreck waiting to happen.
Badminton, a medal sport at the Olympics since 1992, used to run a straight knockout tournament, like tennis. Win to go through to the next match. Lose and go home. Simple.
That was replaced for London with a more complex format with group games first followed by knockout matches. That's good for weaker players. Instead of being eliminated straight away by top players, they at least get two or three games before going home. That is fine and laudable. More matches on sports' biggest stage means more exposure for the lesser lights.
"The group play system has been a tremendous success," said Thomas Lund, the badminton federation official brought out to face the cameras after it went wrong, "except for the two matches we have dealt with."
The problem was China didn't want its two pairings in women's doubles to play each other until the final, so the winner could get gold and the runner-up silver, adding to the pile of medals China hopes will see it finish ahead of the United States when the games end.
Nice plan. But it fell apart when the No. 2 pair -- Tian Qing and Zhao Yunlei -- unexpectedly lost its last group match to a Danish duo on Tuesday morning.
That then pressured the No. 1 pair -- Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang -- to lose, too. Because if they beat South Korea in their last group game Tuesday evening, then the two Chinese pairs could have ended up meeting each other in the semifinals. And the best China could have got then would have been gold and bronze.
So Wang and Yu lost.
So, too, did the Indonesian pair of Greysia Polii and Meiliana Jauhari, against another Korean duo. Seems the Indonesians weren't keen to play China's No.1 pair in the next round, and losing to the Koreans allowed them to avoid that tough matchup.
Even when the fix is in, where there are losers, there must be winners, too. The Korean pairs of Jung Kyung-eun and Kim Ha-na, and Ha Jung-eun and Kim Min-jung both won, despite apparently trying not to.
In other words, the Chinese and Indonesians were seemingly better at losing than the Koreans. And even they weren't that good, because they tossed away points so blatantly that all eight have now been thrown out.
"It was probably very obvious," said Lund, the federation's chief operating officer.
"I have seen that many times," said Danish player Kamilla Rytter Juhl. "But they are just good at acting normally. Normally they play a little bit more."
"We have seen it so many times, but it seems there is nothing we can do about it because the big boss in China, he says 'You have to win, you have to lose," she added. "I think it has been like that for many years. Especially in the Olympic year when it is important to qualify people."
So is that the lesson here? If you must throw a match, be subtle about it?
Of course, that isn't the message the federation and the International Olympic Committee wants other athletes to draw from the eight players' disgrace and disqualification.
"The regulations very clearly state you have to win every match. And that doesn't mean you can throw such matches to win other matches," said Lund. "There's no two ways about that."
Oh, if only life were so cut and dried. In this case, hunger for medals proved stronger than the oath athletes and coaches take at the Olympic opening ceremony to uphold the "spirit of sportsmanship."
Often, the reward for athletes and coaches who win medals -- and not any old medal, but Olympic and world championship ones -- is money for them and their training programs. Or a visit to the White House, the Elysee Palace and other seats of power to shake hands with grateful presidents and prime ministers. Or 15 minutes of talk-show fame.
"There is a lot of conflicts in the Olympics," said Danish team manager Finn Traerup-Hansen.
"We are pushed on medals from our national governing bodies to produce medals," he said. "The other side of it is, of course, the ideal of the Olympics."
And that, well, can sometimes leave nothing more tangible than a warm glow.
Again, that perhaps isn't ideal.
But it is reality.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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