A tactical blunder
Badminton suddenly got a lot of unwanted attention at the London Olympics. Photo: Marcus Mo/Flickr
Eight badminton players have been expelled from the Olympic tournament for deliberately trying to lose their matches. This has been referred to as a scandal, but who is it a scandal for? When did it become illegal to try to gain the greatest tactical advantage in order to get as far as possible in a tournament?
The badminton players were thrown out of the Olympics because they did not live up to the Olympic ideal of athletes giving their all to win. They are said to have put both badminton and the Olympic ideals into disrepute. What happened with “the most important thing is not to win, but to take part”? The banned athletes were booed at because they were losing on purpose. The spectators had paid a lot of money for their tickets and they wanted their money’s worth.
I agree that it was embarrassing to watch, but I am doubtful of whether it was actually against the rules. What is more embarrassing is the fact that the rules are formed in a way that allows for these kinds of tactics. It is the ones who make the rules that should be expelled and not the athletes. And if the audience boos every time the athletes do not give it their best, I believe that we will hear more booing than applause in the final week of the Olympic Games.
I have been following the Olympic swimming competitions closely. There, we are often told that the favorites are basing their performances on their competitors’ results in order to avoid ending up in the same semifinals. In other words, they do not perform their very best at all times, but swim in a way that gives them the greatest tactical advantage. In swimming, this is rather difficult as the athletes qualify based on their times and not their rankings in their respective heats.
In athletics it is different. When it comes to track and field I am sure that we will see Usain Bolt jog-trot in the initial heats and in the knock-out stages. Is this okay? Yes, because he wants to win and save his strength for when it really counts. There is no one who wants to expel Bolt from the Olympics for not performing his best at all times.
When Kobe Bryant – the second biggest sports star in the Olympics – sat on the bench for almost the whole game against Tunisia no one was demanding a refund for their tickets. The US was saving Bryant so that he would be able to perform well later in the tournament. They could probably have won by more with him on the court, but that is not what counts.
Several sources have suggested that the badminton scandal is a form of match-fixing. It is difficult to say. We can only talk about match-fixing when the players receive money to do something they would not have done otherwise. So far nothing indicates that the badminton players were trying to lose for any other reason than to gain a tactical advantage. If they were paid money to lose, the situation would be different.
Basically, there are three forms of match-fixing. When we talk about match-fixing, it is the outcome of the match that is fixed, for example if the badminton players were paid to lose on purpose. Spot-fixing is when you manipulate specific actions in a match, which does not necessarily influence the outcome of the match. If Sharapova or Federer are sure to win their matches and are paid to lose the first set or the first three games of a set on purpose this is spot-fixing – even if they win the match in the end. Another example would be if Bolt was paid not to win his heat in the men’s 100m. The third variety is point-shaving, where you get paid to manipulate the end result but not the outcome of the match. If the American basketball coach was paid not to win with more than 40 points against Tunisia, and Kobe Bryant was a threat to this, the coach could keep Bryant on the bench to make sure he does not score too many points.
I am in no way suggesting that any of the mentioned examples are involved in match-fixing. I am using them to illustrate how match-fixing could occur and that it in many cases is difficult – even impossible – to see if a match has been fixed or not. But as long as no money was involved in the badminton matches it is not match-fixing!
Tactics in the Norway Cup
This week I have been at the Norway Cup (the world’s largest youth football tournament). I am equally pleased and fascinated every time I am there. The Norway Cup, to me, is a real football tournament with genuine joy and genuine competitive spirit. And here you find teams who lose in order to gain the biggest competitive advantage.
The tournament has A and B finals. The best team wins the A finals and the next-best team wins the B finals. Most of the teams in the Norway Cup want to play as many matches as possible. If you are in the next-best category, make it to the A-playoffs and win the final match in the group stage, you will probably get knocked out pretty fast. If you lose on purpose you will make it to the B-playoffs and have a greater possibility of playing more matches and making it to the top. Unethical? Unsportsmanlike? Expel these teams? No, this is a part of the logic of football and sports.
It is a scandal if athletes are not allowed to do everything they can (and here I am not talking about doping) to make it to the top using tactics. And it is a scandal if all athletes are not treated equally. This is true for the world’s largest sports event, for the world’s largest football tournament and for both elite and amateur sports.
If the spectators do not think that they get their money’s worth when the athletes do not give it their all, maybe the problem is more about the ticket prices than the athletes.
This article first appeared on Andreas Selliaas' blog 'Sportens Uutholdelige Letthet' on 2 August 2012. Follow Andreas' blog (in Norwegian) on sportensuutholdeligeletthet.blogspot.com