The badminton debacle sparked furious debate on social media sites. Were the players legitimately exploiting the tournament structure in the pursuit of ultimate victory and a gold medal? Or, were they bringing the sport into disrepute and acting contrary to the Olympic spirit?
The 2012 games has drawn attention to an interesting sports legal question. When does gamesmanship cross the line into unsporting conduct? Nowhere is the spotlight more intense than at the Olympic Games with the eyes of the world on sport as a whole, and pressure on the competitors to live up to the Olympic ideal and Pierre de Coubertin’s philosophy that, “the important thing is not to win, but to take part”.
Wembley Arena, London, 31 July 2012.
Number 1 ranked women’s pair, Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang of China face Jung Kyung-eun and Kim Ha-na of South Korea in the group stage of the Olympic women’s badminton tournament. Boos ring out from the capacity crowd as Yang serves into the net. They intensify as the South Korean pair push a serve well wide of the court. The match referee is forced to step in and warn the players from both countries. The official Olympic news service later described the game (which Jung and Kim eventually won after a series of interruptions) as one in which “neither side seemed to be exerting themselves”.
One hour later and the bizarre scene was repeated with South Korea's Ha Jung-eun and Kim Min-jung pitted against the Indonesians, Meiliana Jauhari and Greysia Polii. Again the referee warned both sets of players, following a series of basic errors, and the crowd called for the players to be sent off. Indonesian officials later admitted that losing the match was part of the team’s tactics.
The reason for the apparent reluctance in the pursuit of victory? All four pairs had already qualified for the knockout phase of the tournament, but losing a game in the round robin phase would mean avoiding the number 2 ranked Chinese pair in the next round.
All four pairs were subsequently charged by the Badminton World Federation and disqualified for "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".
Several commentators have pointed to flaws in the tournament set-up which made this conduct predictable. This is the first time that a group stage has been included in the Olympic tournament, with the intention of giving more exposure to teams from lesser badminton nations. However, a single upset in that phase can mean that winning the group is no longer desirable - much better to come second and face a subsequent draw against a theoretically weaker pair.
Legitimate tactics or unsporting conduct?
Several commentators have pointed to apparent inconsistencies and hypocrisy in the way the badminton issue was dealt with in comparison to similar situations in other sports.
Norio Sasaki, coach of the Japanese Olympic women’s football team, came forward and claimed that his side had deliberately played for a draw in their group match against South Africa, despite the South Africans being one of the weakest teams in the tournament. Sasaki explained that he rested several star players and instructed his team to play defensively, not to avoid a strong opponentin the next round (conversely the Japanese actually ended up with a more difficult draw), but to ensure that his team avoided an eight hour trip to Glasgow for their quarter final. No action followed from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Contrast also the British men’s cycling pursuit team, hot favourites for the gold medal. Philip Hindes was in the "man one" position, meaning he had to lead the first lap. But he skidded out of the gate and was in danger of being passed by a teammate which would have led to a disqualification. So Hindes crashed, exploiting a rule which then allowed his team a restart. “ I did it on purpose just to get the restart, just to have the fastest ride. It was all planned really," he said. Again, no action was taken by the cycling authorities or the IOC.
What of Taoufik Makhloufi, the Algerian middle distance runner expelled from the games for “not providing a bona fide effort” in his 800m heat, only to be reinstated and take the gold medal in the 1500m the following day? It was no secret that Makhloufi wanted to be withdrawn from the 800m to concentrate on his stronger event, but his team failed to do so in time. Makhloufi completed only 150m of his heat before dropping out and wandering off towards the long jump pit. Following his expulsion, he was reinstated after producing a doctor’s note stating that he had a knee injury which led to his retirement. Many commentators remarked on the speed of his recovery as he surged to gold over the longer distance, barely 24 hours later.
Gamesmanship – a modern disease?
The term “gamesmanship” was coined by English author Stephen Potter in his humourous 1947 book “The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship or The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating”. Potter referred to a tennis match in which he and his partner questioned the etiquette of two younger, fitter players to distract them into playing badly. As Potter stated: “there is nothing more putting off to young university players than a slight suggestion that their etiquette or sportsmanship is in question. How well we know this fact, yet how often we forget to make use of it”.
The concept of winning by any means necessary has undoubtedly been around since sport began, but the commercialisation of sport in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has put a higher price on victory. We are now a far cry from the days when a gentleman only played in front of a square, and to question the referee, or indeed the word of another player, was the pinnacle of unsporting conduct.
The Olympics represents maybe the last bastion of true sportsmanship, where traditional etiquette reigns and decisions are accepted (in theory) without question. However, as London 2012 has demonstrated, in these times of third umpires, Hawk-Eye, referrals and medals being stripped and reassigned long after the podium has been dismantled, not even the Games are immune from the scourge of modern sport – victory at all costs.
Richard Berry is an associate in the Sports Group at Lewis Silkin LLP