Four teams of women—two from South Korea, one from China, one from Indonesia—were kicked out of the Olympics after they all attempted to lose their matches in the group stage. It was a farce, bringing boos from the crowd and condemnation from the Olympic and badminton communities. Yet the fault lies not with the teams, who were trying to give themselves better chances at gold, but with the Olympic format that encouraged them to take a dive.
In past Olympics, badminton used a pure knockout stage. Lose and go home. But this year saw a change, in which round-robin group play would decide the seedings for the quarterfinal round. The top-ranked Chinese team of Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang naturally wanted to end up on the opposite side of the bracket as their second-ranked countrymen. And they came into yesterday's match against South Korea knowing they'd have to lose to make that happen. So they tried their best to lose—and so did their opponents. Later on, another South Korean time also tried to throw their match, to avoid meeting the top-ranked Wang and Yu in the next round—and so did their opponents.
See the distinction here? These teams weren't trying to lose to make money. They were trying to lose so that they could ultimately win. That's the Olympic spirit of competition if I ever saw it.
Yet the Badminton World Federation decided that all eight players violated the code of conduct, specifically "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."
Nothing, not even deliberately sending the shuttlecock into the net or out of bounds, is as detrimental to the sport as the new tournament format that all but demands players take dives in order to better their draw. It was so obvious that former British badminton star Gail Emms told the Independent that everyone knew it was going to happen beforehand:
"This point was raised in the lunchtime manager's meeting," she said. "All the managers got together with the referee and said, 'look, this has happened, in Group D you will find some very dodgy matches going on in the evening because of it' and the referee laughed and said 'oh don't be silly'.
"And the managers said 'we know the game, we know the players and we know the teams and we know this is going to happen."
She added: "Badminton, in the Olympics and in all tournaments across the circuit, it's never played in a group stage, it's always a straight knockout system and for some reason they decided that the Olympic Games in 2012 should be this group stages.
"And as soon as heard that I went 'it's going to bring up match fixing', that was my first thought, and lo and behold last night that is exactly what happened."
So the system is fatally flawed, yet we're going to punish the athletes who work within it to maximize their chances of success? This is no different than pro teams tanking to get a better draft pick. The absolute worst you can accuse the Badminton Eight of is not doing a good enough job of pretending like they were trying. They're being punished not for embarrassing the sport, but for failing to prevent the sport from embarrassing itself. They failed on that count.
For a handy master schedule of every Olympic event, click here.