Professionalism/Badminton Scandal of the 2012 Olympics
The Olympic Games are a platform for the best athletes to showcase their talent and unite their country in competition with the world. Before the games athletes recite the Olympic Oath: “In the name of all the competitors I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games… in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams” . Despite longtime popularity, badminton did not debut as a full medal sport until the 1992 Summer Olympics. More than 1.1 billion people watched the badminton games on television . The initial tournament format was single-elimination. Critics argued it allowed top teams to be eliminated early with one upset . To address the concerns, a round-robin tournament was introduced in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Teams are grouped into pools of four to compete in three round-robin games within their pool . The top two teams in each pool advance to the bracket, with records determining their seeds. However when teams clinch a bracket spot with one preliminary game remaining, a loss can set a match-up against a weaker team; a situation where losing can become a winning strategy.
Badminton Women’s Doubles
Entering the 2012 Olympics, the Chinese women’s doubles teams were ranked one and two in the world leading to likely gold and silver medals for the country . This would only happen if the teams were on opposite sides of the bracket following the round-robin games. However in a match-up between China and Denmark, China lost in a huge upset . This meant the two Chinese teams would meet in the semifinals of the bracket rather than the gold-medal game, depriving China of the chance to win both gold and silver. China’s only hope of gold and silver medals was for the other China team to lose in their final round-robin game, pushing themselves to the opposite side of the bracket. The South Korean opponents decided it was also in their best interest to lose, as a defeat would give them an easier bracket match-up .
On July 31, 2012, China and South Korea wanted to lose without looking like it was intentional. Unsuccessfully hiding their intentions, the Chinese and South Korean players repeatedly served the birdie into and under the net . The crowd groaned and booed, chanting “Off! Off! Off! ” BBC broadcaster David Mercer proclaimed “They are just hitting the ball into the net! They are both trying to lose, and that is unforgivable. This is the Olympic Games” . China succeeded in losing .
The actions by China and South Korea set the stage for another round of tanking between South Korea and Indonesia an hour later. Both teams had good reason to do their worst. If South Korea won they’d face their countrymen in the quarterfinals and if Indonesia won they’d face the powerful Chinese team. After similar behavior, the referee issued a black card, signaling disqualification. However the card was rescinded and the match resumed after the Indonesians protested to better their play. South Korea failed to lose .
Verdict & Aftermath
The public and media heavily scrutinized the teams after the matches . In their defense, China’s Yu Yang stated “… we've already qualified and we wanted to have more energy for the knockout rounds” . South Korean Coach Sung Han-kook argued “The Chinese started this. They did it first” . Some argued the behavior was cheating, while others proclaimed it was strategic play to better their chances of a gold medal . After evaluation of the incidents, the Badminton World Federation (BWF) disqualified all four teams; the first mass disqualification in Olympic history . BWF stated the teams were in violation of Section 4.5: “Not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and Section 4.16: “Conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport” of the BWF Players' Code .
“If you lose the competitive element, then the whole thing becomes nonsense,” said Craig Reedie, International Olympic Committee (IOC) Vice President . The Chinese Olympic Delegation stated “The behavior by Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli on court violated the Olympics ideal and the spirit of fair play” . Following these statements and substantial public scrutiny, Yu Yang retired from professional badminton .
Rule manipulation is nothing new to sports, especially the Olympics. At the 1948 Summer Olympics, a Britain sculling pair intentionally lost an earlier round for a more favorable match-up . The Japanese women’s soccer team was instructed not to score in their final group game against South Africa to give them a more favorable match-up in the 2012 Summer Olympics . Michael Phelps, a highly decorated American swimmer, admitted to not swimming his best in trials to save energy. Yet officials issued no punishment in any of these situations . Why is there a difference for badminton?
The party at fault was debated. “It’s me to blame,” said Chinese coach Li Yongbo . The coaches took responsibility for the losing strategy. The players may have been following orders, being put under an agentic state. The implications can be seen in the Milgram experiment, where test subjects were more likely to follow commands when issued from a higher authority. Others blamed the IOC for changing the format to a structure that allowed strategic losing. The IOC recognized the situation, stating “It’s important to make sure it’s not just the athletes that are punished” .
In the National Basketball Association, it became commonplace for teams to routinely lose games in order to improve their draft position. To address the issue, NBA Commissioner David Stern implemented a draft lottery system . In the 2012 Olympics, the Chinese implemented the losing strategy followed by the Koreans and the Indonesians. It was a contagious mentally. The tanking effect can be characterized as cheating begetting cheating, or in this case intentional losing. The teams were professional athletes. They passed the Olympic trials, stated the Athlete’s Oath, and yet were intentionally losing games to better chances of a gold medal. The player’s debilitating conduct can be attributed to the tanking effect.
An analogous example can be seen in choosing undergraduate courses. As professionals in training, a student’s main objective is to become proficient in their field. The tanking effect is exemplified when students sacrifice education by taking easier courses for the sake of a better grade point average.
“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well,” said Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the IOC . Pierre states the ends do not justify the means, rather meaning is derived from the process. In competitive situations, athletes can lose sight of the purpose of sport due to societal pressures for victory. Integrity is often compromised by superficial awards and medals. According to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “honor is superficial if it depends more on those who bestow it rather than on those who receive it. Furthermore, people seem to pursue honor in order that they may be assured of their goodness” . To be honored for virtue and excellence outweigh that of superficial titles. The purpose is not to win, but to have competed with integrity and showcased sportsmanship. The purpose of being a professional is not the end result, but to display professional conduct at all times.
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