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Don't Blame Players for Badminton-Gate

NEW YORK, Oct. 2, 2012: Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced that the New York Yankees had been suspended from the baseball playoffs for failing to put forward their best efforts in a game last night against the Boston Red Sox. 

The Yankees had started a lineup consisting of nine players who had spent the season in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, with Cory Wade on the mound. The Yankees, who clinched the AL East title a week ago, insisted they were resting their starters and saving their pitchers for the playoffs.

The commissioner termed the Yankees’ actions “depressing” and “unacceptable,” and noted the angry reaction of the paying crowd who had expected to see the team’s best players.

“Depressing” and “unacceptable” were the words used by Sebastian Coe, chairman of the 2012 London Olympics, to describe the badminton players from South Korea, China, and Indonesia who are alleged to have deliberately lost their final round-robin matches in order to obtain favorable knockout seeding.

The four pairs from the women’s doubles competition were disqualified from the Games. 

NEW YORK, Dec. 17, 2012: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell lowered the boom on Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger today, suspending him for the remainder of the season and playoffs as a result of his actions in yesterday’s game against Dallas.

“With a minute and a half to go in the game, quarterback Roethlisberger deliberately and knowingly took the snap from center and went down to one knee,” said Goodell. “He ceded yardage on three consecutive plays, making no move to advance the ball. Such depressing and unacceptable actions are an affront to the spirit of the NFL and an insult to the fans at Cowboys Stadium.”

The Steelers won, 37-13.

I agree that there’s a scandal here, and there ought to be suspensions. The officials who devised the format for the badminton competition should resign their posts immediately and return home at their own expense.

The athletes? No punishment is needed, because it is not at all clear that they did anything wrong.

All four pairs had already qualified for the knockout stage of the competition. The only thing at stake was placement in the bracket. 

Because China’s Zhao Yunlei and Tian Qing – ranked No. 2 in the world – lost unexpectedly in group play, top-ranked Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang faced a dilemma. If they won their match against the South Korean pair Jung Kyung Eun and Kim Ha-na, they would place in the same half of the draw as Zhao and Tian. They decided they did not want to face their countrywomen in the semifinals, and resolved to lose to the South Koreans.

Did they believe their best chance of winning lay in not facing the World No. 2 pair until the finals? Losing a match in an effort to further your chances of winning the entire event is analogous to taking a knee to win a game, or giving up an out deliberately by bunting to increase your chance of scoring. It’s not cheating or “match-fixing” – it’s going for the gold.

If their purpose was to increase China’s chances of winning both the gold and silver medals, that’s more problematic but hardly unprecedented. In this year’s Daytona 500, for example, third-place finisher Greg Biffle appeared to concentrate on blocking Dale Earnhardt, Jr., from passing Biffle’s teammate Matt Kenseth in the final lap rather than trying to finish first himself.

In a sport where an individual (or pair) is the winner, it’s fine to do what you have to do within the rules to win. Doing whatever you can to help someone else win is not, but it happens all the time; the Tour de France would be impossible without it.

In the badminton non-scandal, the South Koreans saw what Wang and Yu were doing and tried to thwart them by playing worse, realizing that what was good for the Chinese pairs would be bad for their own chances. When Ha Jung-eun and Kim Min Jung from South Korea and Greysia Polii and Meiliana Jauhari from Indonesia met later, they faced the same considerations; farce resulted

What’s an athlete to do when put in a position where losing is actually preferable to winning? The goal is the gold medal; nobody remembers who came through the preliminaries undefeated.

It is up to the administrators to structure the competition so that this situation doesn’t come up. It’s not as though it’s impossible to anticipate; it happens too frequently for that. 

The problem is easy to avoid. Declare at the start that athletes from the same country will be put in separate parts of the draw, same as how they’re placed in separate groups for the preliminaries. Give the winner of each group its choice of opponent for the quarterfinals, selections made in order of world ranking. Instead of group play, go directly to the knockout stage – as had been the case at ALL previous Olympic badminton events. If the goal is to keep lesser players around longer, make the tournament double-elimination.    

Any of these would work. They’d certainly work better than the one the officials chose.

The badminton players were egregious in their efforts to lose – they could learn a thing or two from tennis exhibitions – but the absurdity is wholly the fault of those who set up the conditions of the contest.

The “spirit of the Olympics” does not require athletes to act against their own interests. And blaming the athletes for the failures of the organizers is what’s truly depressing and unacceptable.

Jeff Neuman's columns for RealClearSports appear on Monday and Thursday. Follow him on Twitter @NeumanJeff. His collected golf writing and blogging can be found at www.neumanprose.com.

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