Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Bye Bye Birdie

It's ready-made material for comedy writers: an Olympic badminton scandal! 8 players have been DQ'd in London after tanking their matches, and around the world, you can hear the clucks of disapproval.

The legendary British sportsman Lord Sebastian Coe called it "depressive" and "unacceptable". Fans in the arena booed as doubles squads from China, South Korea, and Indonesia played a brand of badminton that would have gotten you booed out of last weekend's family reunion tournament. There was nothing subtle about the way each side tried to out-tank the other, patty-caking serves into the net, allowing the shuttlecock to drop unmolested, standing stock-still instead of darting about the court.

I've watched this farce several times, and I gained a weird kind of respect for the players involved. The crowd was booing, tournament officials were growing increasingly frantic (at one point issuing a disqualifying "black card", but then rescinding it), and yet the stoic players continued their non-efforts.

Naturally, the vast majority of people who hear about this are branding the Shuttlecock Eight as losers, poor sports, and worse. But when you dig a bit deeper into this story, you might come to a different conclusion. I did.

Here's the thing: If I asked you to define the goal of an Olympic athlete, you'd answer without hesitation: "Win a gold medal." Easy, right?

Maybe not. What happened on that badminton court in London was, perversely, because the players wanted to win gold. And it wasn't totally unexpected.

Badminton's governing body sowed the seeds of this weedpatch by changing the Olympic badminton tournament from a "knockout" event (lose once and you go home) to a pool-play format, where teams play several preliminary-round matches and then the top teams from each group advance to the knockout rounds.  It wasn't a popular decision; many in the sport sensed that it could lead to teams throwing matches to arrange a more favorable slot in the round of 16. In fact, on the very day of The Great London Tanking, the Australian coach implored officials to at least schedule all the pool-round matches simultaneously so no team would be able to game the system.

Naturally, the Lords of Shuttlecock ignored the pleas and the rest is history. 8 athletes are being sent home in shame for, essentially, trying to give themselves a better shot at a gold medal. I'm fascinated by the negative reaction; are people similarly outraged when a runner eases her way to the finish line in a heat, knowing she's secured a slot in the next round?

Much of the opprobrium centers on the notion of sportsmanship. But let's circle back: if the goal of the endeavor is to win a medal, is it "unsportsmanlike" to try to put yourself in a position to win it? Each match in the tournament is merely a step toward the goal, not an end in and of itself.

If anyone should be sent packing, it's the badminton poobahs. They set the trap into which 8 women stepped in pursuit of Olympic glory. Talk about disrespecting the sport--a bunch of guys in blazers and ties are the ones who should be called out.

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