Until this week, badminton probably wasn’t one of the sports that Americans generally linked to cheating and international scandal. More like backyard cookouts and college fitness classes.
Even the college gym types, though, understand there’s an unspoken agreement between participants: Championship or practice, competition or graduation requirement, you will not intentionally lose to a worthy opponent.
Players might balk at this if they’re rewarded for shunning victory. That’s allegedly what was at play this week when four pairs of female badminton players were disqualified from the Olympics, accused of trying to lose their last qualifying-round matches to face easier opponents in the knockout stage.
The players appear to have denied paying spectators of the competitive matches they’d come to see. The London Olympic organizing committee’s chairman, Sebastian Coe, said the incident was depressing and unacceptable.
But it’s not the first time that this has happened in a tournament’s group stage. And it’s not even the only time in these very Games that a team tried not to win.
The coach of Japan women’s Olympic soccer team acknowledged that it intentionally avoided scoring in its third and final group game, a 0-0 draw with winless South Africa on Wednesday, according to The Independent.
Japan would have won its four-team group with a victory. But a draw put it in second, just enough to qualify for the knockout stage.
Japan’s coach says he did it to ensure the team didn’t travel across the United Kingdom. Second place meant it would start the knockout round in Cardiff, Wales, where the squad already was. The winner of Group F, in contrast, will play its first knockout game in Scotland.
“It was important not to move to Glasgow but to stay here and prepare for the next match,” Japanese coach Norio Sasaki said, according to The Independent.
Other teams throughout the years have been accused of manipulating their last group-stage games to ensure a desired knockout-round match. Suspicion about Sweden’s 2006 Olympic hockey team swirled, for example, after it avoided powerhouse Canada in the knockout round by losing to Slovakia in the final group game, suspicions fanned by Swedish star Peter Forsberg, who said nothing about any such plan but told Sweden’s SVT that he “saw no reason to win the (Slovakia) game” before walking those comments back, according to Philly.com.
It’s not entirely certain why the four badminton teams – one from China, two from South Korea and one from Indonesia – allegedly threw their last group-stage games. But the bracket illustrates why teams might be tempted to throw games in such a format.
The competition comprises four groups of four teams, with teams playing three games against its own group. Afterward, the top two teams from each group advance to a single-elimination tournament.
The world’s No. 1 team, Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang of China, were in Group A. You’d think they’d want to win the group, so they could face Group C’s second-place team in the quarterfinals. Because if they finished second in A, they’d face Group C’s first-place squad.
But something happened in the other groups, the Bs and Ds, that might have made a potential semifinal match worrisome for A1. The world’s No. 2 team, China’s Tian Qing and Zhao Yunlei – who are not accused of wrongdoing – had a so-so time in Group D and finished second there.
D2 and B1 are on A1’s side of the bracket for the semis. So, theoretically, if Wang and Yu were A1, they could meet D2 – their countrywomen and the world No. 2 squad, Tian and Zhao – in the semis.
But A2 is on the other side. If both A2 and D2 won out, they wouldn’t meet until the final.
In Group A’s final match Tuesday, Wang/Yu faced South Korea’s Jung-Kyung-eun and Kim Ha-na. Both already had qualified for the knockout round. They are accused of trying to lose to each other in that match, which would make them A2 instead of A1.
The crowd booed as it appeared the pairs were serving into the net on purpose, and the tournament referee interrupted the match to issue warnings. “Neither side seemed to be exerting themselves,” an official Olympic news release said.
Wang and Yu eventually lost, meaning they’d be on opposite sides of the No. 2 team.
Later, Group C’s top two teams – Indonesia’s Meiliana Jauhari and Greysia Polii, and South Korea’s Ha Jung-eun and Kim Min-jung – also seemed to be trying to lose to each other in an apparent bid to arrange easier knockout opponents, Olympics officials said.
China's Lin Dan, the No. 2 men's singles player, told reporters Tuesday that he hoped the accused would be disqualified, saying he thought the performances presented “a bad image for badminton." But he also blamed the group-stage format, which was a switch for Olympic badminton. Badminton in the 2008 Olympics was strictly a single-elimination affair.
"Whenever they set the rules, they should take that situation into consideration," Lin said, according to The Guardian. "I don't understand why there is a group situation (rather than a straight knockout competition)."
Group stages are designed to let the best teams rise to the top, but still give all squads a fair shot over a number of games before elimination. All participants in the Olympics badminton tournament got a minimum of three games, whereas a single-elimination tournament, or even a double-elimination, would have seen some teams go home sooner.
Mike Walker, who won 14 U.S. national badminton titles, and 2012 U.S. national men’s doubles champion Kowi Chandra told CNN that the format has its positives, but both prefer single-elimination.
“(Single-elimination) is a much cleaner event,” Walker, a California badminton supply business owner and 1992 USA Badminton Walk of Fame inductee, said by phone Wednesday. “You play and you lose, or you play and you win.”
But both said the format was no excuse for the eight disqualified Olympians.
“I was shocked,” Chandra said Wednesday. “It’s the Olympic Games, and you play like this and throw the match? It’s very disappointing. It’s not a good example for young players.”