The Olympics badmintongate affair is not only the biggest scandal of the London games so far, it’s also the most prominent scandal of any kind in recent memory involving a word that is so universally mispronounced. (Or at least I think it is … Does anyone really pronounce that middle “n” as you are supposed to and not say “badmitton”?) Of course, one person’s scandal is another’s golden opportunity, as we learn from those crafty Canadians who are making the most of the mass disqualification of top players for throwing matches in order to garner more favorable matchups in a subsequent round. That opportunity, alas, turned out to be less fecund for the Australians, who won’t move on in badminton but could medal in the rollercoaster competition.
Putting aside the “human drama of athletic competition” (remember that one?) aspect, what are the ethics involved in badmintongate? In a round robin tournament that is not single elimination, a competitor plays on even after losing, and in some formats (like Olympic badminton), match-ups in later rounds are configured based on outcomes in earlier rounds. So when upsets occur, a team may find itself with a more felicitous path to glory by strategically gaming its outcomes (a euphemism for “losing on purpose”) in earlier rounds to face the opponent you’d prefer to face in the ensuing round. This is what the athletes in question did, drawing boos from crowds (yes apparently there are people who will pay to watch the birdie) and expulsions from their sport’s governing federation. Did they engage in bad behavior, or are they being punished simply for being strategic?
From the spectators’ perspective, the athletes clearly did screw the pooch. If you are going to engage in an activity for which actual people pay actual money to see you try to win a match, you are obliged to try to win a match or else not participate at all. If the rules allow a forfeit without losing place in the tournament, the right move for someone who wants to throw a match is to just say “we choose to not play” and accept the loss. By playing and intentionally losing, you rob the audience of what they paid for, and you waste their time in doing so.
And what if the rules don’t allow a forfeit (that is, forfeiting a match ends your participation in the tournament)? What then? One option is to address the audience, explaining that we want to pass on this match and accept our place in the loser’s bracket, but because we are required to play it out we are going to lose intentionally, and we will endeavor to do so as quickly as possible; meanwhile feel free to use this opportunity to hit the concession stands or otherwise spend time practing your pronounciation of “badminton.”
But there’s a problem: With these athletes expelled, we now know that the sport won’t allow this kind of gaming, and presumably they would feel the same if it involved the alternative methods I have proposed (the deliberate time-saving forfeit or the civilized address to the spectators about one’s intentions). But let’s not be too hard on the competitors and their coaches, who were just doing what the system here — the tournament format — incentivizes them to do if winning a medal is the goal. Their actions did treat the audience badly, yes, so we cannot say their actions did no harm. Even so, the real problem is the system itself, which these athletes didn’t design. Most sports reward strategy along with skill, athleticism, and stamina, and we now know that Olympic badminton is no exception.
So for me, on balance, expelling these competitors seems like overkill. Scold them mercilessly, and perhaps impose some sanctions that suspend them for a bit in competitions after the Olympics. Give the fans who attended their money back for that session, because they are the ones harmed, but let the tournament proceed with its best (and also apparently cleverest) players still in the frame. And then change the format for next time, which the sport’s governing body is already pondering.
One sportswriter summed up the ethics of badmintongate in this way: “If they’re keeping score, you play to win.” But do you play to win the battle? Or the war?
A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.