Players take up the fight against match fixing in badminton


By Maria Suurballe
Long-held suspicions were confirmed in late March this year, when Chinese badminton coach Li Yongbo admitted to fixing one of the women’s singles semi-finals at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
Feathered Shot. Photo (c) Flickr user Caldecott Rose and uploaded under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence.

Thus far, the Badminton World Federation (BWF) has failed to get an explanation from China over the admission. The Badminton Players Federation (BPF) is keen for answers though, and calls for tough sanctions against the Chinese coach.

After the admission by Li Yongbo, the BWF began to set up an Ethics Commission to deal with similar incidents in the future, though its progress has disappointed the BPF.

“Not enough action has been taken,” says Bobby Milroy, President of Badminton Players Federation. “In such a case where Li Yongbo feels it appropriate to boast about match-fixing, the BWF should do whatever it takes to ensure his immediate dismissal.”

“My recommendation at the time was to ban Chinese players from all competitions, including the Olympics, until such time as Li Yongbo was fired,” continues Milroy.

How the BWF would react to such a proposal coming from its Ethics Commission is uncertain. The world governing body for badminton has been contacted for a response by Play the Game, though at the time of writing is yet to respond. However, given the popularity of badminton in China, it would be a bold move for the BWF to eliminate the Chinese team on the verge of the Beijing Olympics. 

Players unhappy
Why Li Yongbo decided to go public with this admission remains unclear, though his admissions come as no surprise to many top badminton players.

Among them is Anna Rice, Canada’s top female singles player and world number 30, who has been outspoken in her criticism of the toleration of this form of match fixing in international badminton.

“Apparently Chinese coaches have publicly admitted fixing matches for years, and to the Chinese it is regarded to be an act of patriotism to make the best win”, says Rice to Play the Game.

According to Yongbo, the Chinese team has nothing to be ashamed of as China has a history of favouring certain players when two of them meet at international events. “It shows our patriotism and in fact I’m proud of it,” Yongbo told China Central Television’s sports channel.

Rice disagrees: “In Asia there seem to be widespread knowledge about the fixing of matches, apparently without this being a matter of major concern within the national federations.”

Empathy and concern
Fellow Canadian Martha Deacon, the former president of Badminton Canada, echoes her views.

“The public admission of match fixing has been of great concern to athletes worldwide. Great empathy and concern is expressed to athletes who have become direct victims of this. The players in most countries will not tolerate this unfair play,” says Deacon to Play the Game.

Yongbo’s admission centred on the semi-final at the Athens Olympics between Zhou Mi and Zhang Ning. After watching Zhang win the first game, the coaching staff decided that she would have a better chance at winning the final against a non-Chinese opponent rather than Zhou. “So we told Zhou Mi not to work too hard and let Zhang into the final,” Yongbo, the Chinese coach, told television reporters.

Zhang won the gold as planned over Mia Audina representing the Netherlands, and is expected to defend her Olympic title at the Beijing Games in August. After the tournament, Zhou quit the Chinese team and went to play for Hong Kong. She has now qualified to represent the territory at the Beijing Olympics.

The Players Federation takes this case very seriously: “The BPF will continue to push for harsher sanctions against anyone caught match fixing. It is also our intention to open an investigation into match fixing practices,” says Bobby Milroy to Play the Game. 

Match fixing widespread
Apparently the 2004 Olympics case was not a one-off. “The issue of match fixing is not only a problem in the women's singles, it affects all five disciplines,” writes Rice on her personal blog

At the All-England Super Series Men’s Singles final in March this year there were suspicions about the Chinese player and world number one in the men’s singles, Lin Dan’s defeat to teammate Chen Jin. And in April’s Asian Championship in Malaysia, Lin Dan again failed to play his best as he lost to Chen Jin in the semi-finals.

Experts suggest that Lin Dan threw the match in order to get Chen Jin into the final to ensure a ranking of fourth in the world, thereby guaranteeing qualification for the Olympics for Chen Jin and hereby secure the Chinese Team an extra player.

“It is very telling that many journalists at the 2008 All-England had their articles about the Men's Singles final already written the night before the match. The outcome was clearly pre-determined”, concludes Rice.

Absence of individualism
According to Dr. Huan Xiong from Irish Institute of Chinese Studies at University College Cork in Ireland, there are some basic explanations to this phenomenon, which may be embedded in the Chinese social system.

“For a long time, no individualism has existed in Chinese society. Everyone belongs to the state and has to obey to the nation. The interests of nation and the state always come first when social members make their decisions. This ideology is also reflected in sport. To guarantee the final success of the games, the team manager has the right to decide which player is going to play and win for next matches,” Huan Xiong tells Play the Game.

Athletes, who are selected as young kids, trained, and paid by the Chinese Government are pretty much like employees of the Government. “Their job is to win medals and serve the nation. Emotionally, the sports teams are their second homes and they have to listen to their coaches, managers, who play the roles like their parents” Huan Xiong continues.

However, Huan Xiong believes that this phenomenon in Chinese sport will change in the process of market-oriented transformation. Some of the athletes have become aware of their own individual rights and interests.

Beijing Olympics
But when Anna Rice takes to the court this summer in Beijing, it will not just be this kind of match fixing that will worry the Canadian and her fellow players.

Other circumstances cause concern for players, such as the amount of Chinese referees and line judges during the matches in Beijing, bringing into question the impartiality of the officiating at the Games. According to the IOC rules, a minimum of ten percent of the referees and line judges at the Olympic matches should be foreigners, and the Chinese organizers have kept close to that figure when the referee team was set.

The fear of unfair verdicts is backed up by Danish national badminton coach, Steen Pedersen, who worries that the passion for badminton in China will mean that match officials will feel compelled to ensure Chinese victories. “Fair play is not on top of their list and that will without doubt influence on the verdicts during the Games,” says Pedersen to Play the Game.

Danish players have often played in China and they are used to be cheated by the Chinese referees and line judges, believes the Danish coach. “That’s the conditions we have to play under; the important thing is to be well prepared when you meet these types of challenges and to be able to control your emotions, even if you get a clearly unfair verdict,” Pedersen concludes.

To counteract these biases, Pedersen advocates for new rules regarding referees and line judges, especially at big events such as the Olympics in order to obtain more neutral verdicts during the matches and to secure that the Olympic Games first and foremost is a matter of fair play and sportsmanship.

More transparency in badminton
However, in spite of the wrangling and tension within the Badminton World Federation and the recent admissions of fixed matches, Pedersen is optimistic regarding the future: “BWF is moving in a positive direction, especially after the resignation of Punch Gunalan, the former vice president of BWF. Now we need to agree on some rules and penalties pointing forward to avoid match fixing.”

Nonetheless, Rice an ambassador for the pressure group “Right to Play”, believes it is important to her to get the problems in international badminton out in the open, also in western countries where badminton is not such a big sport as it is in Asia: “I take the issue of match fixing in our sport very seriously. To me it is as much a form of cheating as is doping. Not only does it cast a light of illegitimacy on our entire sport (and everyone involved with it), it also takes away the right of players to pursue their own destiny.”

Rice suggests a special committee set up within the IOC to investigate the incidents and to punish the teams. “It is important to create a body to ensure, protect and promote the ethical values of our sport,” she concludes.

A similar proposal was put forward by Play the Game in 2006, for a global coalition against corruption in sport, similar to the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“We have seen and documented so many instances of corruption, democratic deficiencies and sporting swindles, which can neither be solved by sports organisations' own ethical committees – which in reality function as bottles for delicate questions – nor by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) or the International Olympic Committee. There are too many opportunities for corruption and cheating in international sport, and there is quite simply a need for one authority, which can in a credible way devise a rulebook that ensures sports leaders can be sentenced with similar penalties to the ones they impose on the athletes,” believes Jens Sejer Andersen, Director of Play the Game.

The idea of an anti-corruption agency appeals to the BPF: “I would really like to be involved with it in some capacity,” Milroy tells Play the Game.

According to Martha Deacon, the athletes have to be united and step up to the plate to say this is unacceptable to ensure the integrity of badminton and for unethical practices to be challenged and stopped. “Bobby Milroy, the BWF Player Representative will be in China to continue to advocate for the game and what is right and fair. He needs the support of nations, of policy makers of NOC as he tries to move forward.”

“There has to be some very tough measures and sanctions put into place and monitored for the future,” says Deacon. “Everyone involved in badminton must take off their own ‘hats’ and find a way to work together and find common ground for the future of the sport”.  

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