The Rules and the Code: Reflections on Olympic Badminton–and Hypocrisy

As everyone knows now, four pairs of female badminton players, among the best in the world, were tossed out of the Olympic games for deliberately playing badly in hopes of positioning themselves better for the next round. When it was evident what the players were up to, the crowd booed, the referee admonished, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was shocked–shocked!–to find Olympic competitors actually taking the rules so seriously that they considered a strategy to optimize their opportunities of success, only to be scolded and disqualified.

Had the players not taken this approach, however, they might well have lost earlier than they were aiming to–upsets are common in sports, after all, and especially at the Olympics. Indeed, at the top level of any sport, the margin of superiority is usually pretty slender. So what, precisely, was wrong with these competitors doing their best to compete–that is, to go as far as they possibly could in the competition? Had they not taken this route, mightn’t they later have been mocked as stupidly surrendering a sensible strategy to their opponents–for, in short, not seizing every legal advantage?

Some people (certainly not I, but some) have wondered about the complete and total collapse of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts this past year, just as one of the great college quarterbacks was to become available to replace their injured and aging ace. Others (certainly not I, but others) have wondered about the NBA’s Golden State Warriors adopting a similar strategy of deliberate losing in order to position themselves better for the future.

The irony is thick here. The Olympic athletes are scorned for refusing to play their best when playing their best would–because of rules they didn’t ask for and clearly despised–hurt their chances of success. Yet the only Olympic ideal truly valued by the national teams and their sponsors is winning. Money, coaching, facilities, attention–they all go to winners, not to the nicest or most honorable. Meanwhile, professional athletes who are entertainers first and last and who owe their paying customers a good show might well be tanking.

Yes, Olympic spectators pay big bucks for seats, too. But their argument then is with the IOC and the particular geniuses who came up with the new format for badminton–a format that, given a few minutes’ thought, would virtually guarantee that one or more teams would spot the loophole and try to lose in the first round. We can’t blame athletes for thinking creatively, ruthlessly, and courageously (they had to know they would be scorned) about how to obtain any edge they could legally find. Can we?

Maybe we can, nonetheless. It certainly is hypocritical for the IOC to bounce the athletes when the IOC self-righteously wraps itself in the sanctity of its rules whenever it is challenged in the spirit of fair play. “The judge clearly blew that call! Just look at the videotape!” “Too bad. The rules say, ‘no appeal.'” No, the IOC has no moral ground on which to expel these competitors.

But we can condemn them, nonetheless. For while they obeyed the rules, they broke the Code. They broke the Olympic code, yes, and the Code of competitive sport itself, whether at the Olympic Games or down at your local gym: Give me your best game, may the best person win, leave it all on the field, citius, altius, fortius.

There is yet some condemnation left over for us, too. For so long as we applaud “our” teams when they win because of another team’s misfortune, or a blown call by a referee, or a technicality pounced upon by a vigilant coach, then we, too, are betraying the Code.

Where honour fails, law must substitute. The badminton players observed the law, but dishonoured the game and thus themselves. The IOC should have let them stay and changed the rules for next time. But it’s sad to come to that conclusion.

And it’s heartening to turn one’s attention to other sports in which nice guys are indeed finishing first, second, third–or at all. Kudos to every one of them.