The Worst Thing an Olympic Athlete Can Do Is Try to Lose

By Jake Simpson

And that's why everyone involved in the badminton match-throwing scandal should be banned from the Games for life.

simpson_badminton_post.jpg
AP Images

The biggest story of the Olympics so far is not the U.S. women's gymnastics team winning all-around gold or the exploits of the U.S. men's basketball team or the sizzling tennis action taking place at the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon. It's not even Michael Phelps' record-setting Olympic medals.

No, the leading Olympic storyline after six days of competition is an abject breakdown of the competitive integrity of seemingly the entire women's badminton field. And it's a scandal that demands the harshest of responses.

Four pairs of athletes in the women's team competition—the No. 1-ranked squad from China, both South Korea teams and an Indonesian squad—deliberately tried to lose their early-round matches in an attempt to get more favorable matchups in the quarterfinals. The tankapalooza led to a perverse scene in London, with announcers and fans reacting first with disbelief, then with disgust as the eight women spat in the face of the "integrity of the game", the touchstone on which the entire Olympics are based.

The Associated Press explains:

For the badminton players, the moral question was somewhat more complex. Badminton was introduced at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, but this is the first time it has included a round-robin format before win-or-go-home tournament play.

The chain of manipulation was set in motion when a team from Denmark unexpectedly beat the second-seeded team in the tournament, from China. By all accounts, that match was decided fairly.

The loss put the Chinese team on course to face their compatriots, world doubles champions Wang Xiaoli and Yu, in the semifinals, not the finals, as expected.

Wang and Yu then set out to lose so they would go into the bottom half of the draw. They hardly exerted themselves - and neither did their opponents, the South Koreans, drawing jeers from the crowd and warnings from the umpire.

Wang and Yu ultimately proved better at losing.

The lust for loss spread to the other South Korean team and the squad from Indonesia, who both knew that a win would put them in the quarterfinals against the top-ranked team of Wang and Yu. So when they played later Tuesday, both sides hit the shuttlecock into the net time after time after time. The match umpire eventually disqualified both teams for not trying to win, a rationale that would have been stupefying if it weren't true. Both teams promised to play "better" and the match was reinstated, but the following day Olympic officials booted all four teams from the tournament.

MORE ON THE OLYMPICS

Some have blamed the round-robin format for encouraging teams to lose to improve their position, while others said the coaches are the real culprits here. No. No. No. We're talking about eight Olympic athletes, competing in the pinnacle event of their sport, abjuring the Olympic motto of "Faster, Higher, Stronger" for "Slower, Lower, Loser".

The Olympics is full of problems, to be sure. It's over-commercialized, bloated by corporate interests, and corrupt at the highest levels of its governing body. But what makes the Olympics worth watching is that the best athletes in the world at their respective sports compete at the highest possible level to crown the best of the best in the world. What these eight women did is beyond disgusting—it's a body blow to the Olympics as an institution.

There have been instances of athlete perverting the integrity of competition at the Olympics before. Perhaps the most infamous scandal came in 1988, when Canadian Ben Johnson won the 100-meter dash and broke the world record in the process, only to test positive for steroids after the race and be stripped of his gold medal in disgrace. But even Johnson, as morally bankrupt as he was, changed the playing field in an attempt to WIN. The badminton teams, at least in the round robin games they were playing, tried to lose. They tried to lose in the Olympics. Short of a judging scandal—and one of those may be in the offing—there's no worse failure of Olympic competition than that.

The fallout from the scandal has been swift. All eight of the Olympians are in the process of having their credentials pulled and being forced to go home. The IOC has said it will investigate whether any coaches, trainers, or team officials were complicit in or ordered the tanking. Yang, a defending Olympic champion, said on her blog that she plans to retire from badminton entirely.

All of that is good, but it's not enough. The eight players should all be permanently barred from the Olympics. You piss on the rug of the mansion that is the Olympics, you don't get invited back. The IOC should say as much, publicly, and it should also bar the Chinese, South Korean, and Indonesian delegations from bringing more than one women's badminton team to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. Anything less would implicitly condone the teams' actions and send the catastrophically backwards message that playing to lose in the Olympic will net you a slap on the wrist.

Olympic officials should obviously take other measures as well, such as reforming the asinine badminton round-robin system that can be gamed by selectively losing. But there needs to be as powerful a disincentive as possible against any form of cheating at the Olympics. And though they didn't dope their blood or weight the shuttlecock with lead, the four teams involved were cheating. They cheated the fans in the arena out of a legitimate Olympic experience. They cheated every woman who moved heaven and earth to make an Olympic team in badminton, only to fall short. They cheated the other teams in the tournament who made the apparently difficult decision to, you know, play to win. Most of all, they cheated the Olympic ideal of athletic competition with integrity that makes every Games a once-in-a-lifetime event. And for the good of the Games, they—and their coaches, if they were in on the tank jobs—need to be punished in the harshest possible manner.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/08/the-worst-thing-an-olympic-athlete-can-do-is-try-to-lose/260665/