Fans of irony must be delighted by this; after several days of controversy about a Chinese athlete who performed too well, we can now look forward to several days of controversy about a Chinese athlete who didn’t try hard enough. Yu Yang, one half of the sport’s top women’s doubles pairing, has decided to quit badminton after being disqualified from the Olympics.
If you haven’t been keeping pace with the story so far, here’s a recap. (If you have, feel free to skip the next three paragraphs).
For the first time, this year’s Olympic badminton tournaments are split into two stages; a round robin qualifying group stage, followed by a knockout tournament. On Tuesday, the final games of the group stages of the women’s doubles were played, and the day began with a shock; the no.2 seeds, China’s Tian and Zhao, lost to unfancied Danish opponents. The Danes topped the group, and Tian and Zhao finished second, which meant they were now in the same half of the draw as the competition’s top seeds, their illustrious compatriots, Yu and Wang, who they would now face in the semi-finals, rather than the final… unless Yu and Wang also lost their final round robin game!
Yu and Wang promptly took a dive, in a farcical match against South Korea’s Kim and Jung, (who were also guaranteed a quarter-final spot before the match began) . To their credit, it only took Kim and Jung a few points to realise that something was amiss; the principal clue being that the world’s best badminton team were playing like hungover club players. The South Koreans conferred, and quickly decided to match their opponents incompetence. Both teams began peppering the net with flubbed serves, until tournament officials stepped in, and threatened both teams with disqualification. This only served to improve the accuracy of the best players in the world, who now contrived to miss their shots by the tiniest of margins. In many ways, it was an impressive technical display, and the only clue that something was awry was the fact that the entire match played out without a rally longer than four strokes, which, needless to say, is quite unusual in Olympic badminton. The audience in the Wembley Arena were not pleased, to put it mildly.
The Koreans lost this battle, which is to say, they won the match, and their qualification group. This meant that Wang and Yu finished second, and were now in the “wrong” half of the draw, and this posed a problem for the players in the next match, Indonesia’s Jauhari and Polii, and South Korea’s Kim and Ha. The winner of their match would now have to face the no. 1 seeds in the quarter-finals, or, to put it another way, the winner of their match was all but guaranteed to miss out on an Olympic medal. Another match of technically impressive incompetence ensued, and once again, it was the South Koreans who emerged the reluctant victors.
The cry went up: Outrage! Shame! Something must be done! And the sport’s governing body, the Badminton World Federation, did what governing bodies do best; it dropped the banhammer, and disqualified all eight contestants from the Olympic Games for breaching the sport’s code of conduct. The relevant sections are Sections 4.5 (“not using one’s best efforts to win a match”) and 4.16 (“conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport”).
I wonder whether the players had their BWF handbooks in their kitbags? Did they have time to consult the website before taking to the court? Were they completely aware of the exact wording of section 4.5, or did they momentarily forget whether they, as world class athletes, were supposed to use their best efforts to win a meaningless dead rubber, or an Olympic gold medal? Or have they just been viciously punished by an organising body who have violated section 4.16 far more than any of their athletes?
This entire situation arose because the BWF wanted more airtime for their sport. This is understandable, as the Olympics delivers audiences and exposure which are absolutely enormous for any sport, but for a minority sport such as badminton it’s impossible to overstate how important the Olympics are, and a governing body will want to maximise their exposure. However, the BWF chose to do this by taking a risk; they knew that by introducing a group stage to the tournament they would double the number of matches, but they also knew that some of those extra matches would be dead rubbers. They weighed up the pros and cons, and decided that the benefits of more airtime outweighed the benefits of less competitive matches. But then, when less competitive matches occurred, the BWF reacted by disqualifying everyone involved!
It is, in short, spectacular hypocrisy. It’s fine for the BWF to compromise the sporting integrity of an Olympic competition, purely because of the prestige involved, but when their athletes do the same in pursuit of Olympic glory, it’s suddenly a disciplinary matter. And to what end? The consequence of the BWF’s scattergun disciplinary approach was that the quarter-final stage of the tournament was looking a bit thin. In fact, as half of the competitors had been disqualified, it was looking like the semi-finals. However, giving the remaining four qualifiers a bye to the semi-final stage would mean four less games in the tournament, and as we’ve already seen, the BWF want us to enjoy as many games as possible, so they hit on a brilliant idea!
Let’s introduce four more doubles pairings to the story. Meet Bruce/Li (a fearsome combination, that one) of Canada, Sorokina/Vislova of Russia, Veeran/Choo of Australia, and Viljoen/Edwards of South Africa. These pairs appeared to lose all of their games to the disqualified athletes in the group stages, but if you check the official record, you will see that in fact, they won those matches! And, in an incredible sequence of events, they seem to have won them all in straight sets, 21-0, 21-0. They topped their groups, and qualified for the quarter-finals, to the relief of all fans of meaningful Olympic competition. What’s more, fans of meaningful Olympic medal results will be delighted to hear that, at the time of writing, at least one medal will go be won by these lucky
losers winners, as both Bruce/Li and Sorokina/Vislova have made it to the semi-finals.
Well, that’s certainly restored the integrity of the competiton! Well done, Badminton World Federation.