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.

13 Responses to “The Rules and the Code: Reflections on Olympic Badminton–and Hypocrisy”

  1. Josue

    They shouldnt have been penalized/disqualified. They didnt break any rules. Spectators need to get over their sense of entitlement. Lots of times people who “lose” actually win and vice versa — its part of sport.

    Sometimes people use rope-a-dope strategies or fabian strategies or whatever and it pays off in their pursuit of winning the gold: but its up to the fan to decide if it was really worth it. To me, being a wuss is its own penalty.

    We need to use situations like this recent one at the olympics as springboards to talk about what constitutes greatness, and winning, and so forth, and thus achieve better understanding. When you understand, it’s hard to be angry. Instituting more rules is the last thing is we need, perhaps most of all because it prevents the possibility of those dialogues to take place.

  2. Glen

    To be fair, they did break the rules. The International badminton rules have a clause that you had to give your best effort, which would apply in the olympics. So it was not legal to try to exploit this loophole in the manner they did.

    This does happen in other sports. The Russian basketballers may have tanked to give themselves a favourable draw. It’s only like this when both sides are determined to lose. There was a similar case in Asian soccer a few years ago, where neither side tried to score and then they competed for own goals at the end. Both teams were later disqualified.

    I think it was right to boot them out. There is some abuse, but flagrant abuse undermines the integrity of the sport. I agree much blame should go to the organisers who should have forseen this. But single elimination also has its disadvantages, as a very strong team may lose to the strongest team before the late rounds.

    • John Stackhouse

      Any chance you could document the claim that the rules require that one “give your best effort”? I’ve read rulebooks for a few other sports I’ve played, and do not recall any such clause, so I’d be fascinated to see if there is indeed such a rule in badminton. Then I’d be interested to consider WHY there has to be such a rule!

  3. conrade

    A correction needs to be made. It is the Badminton World Federation (BWF) and not the IOC that made the call to disqualify the players.

  4. Frank

    A player shall not:
    16.6.1 deliberately cause delay in, or suspension of, play;
    16.6.2 deliberately modify or damage the shuttle in order to change its speed or its flight;
    16.6.3 behave in an offensive manner; or
    16.6.4 be guilty of misconduct not otherwise covered by the Laws of Badminton.
    Administration of breach
    The umpire shall administer any breach of Law 16.4.1, 16.5.2 or 16.6 by: issuing a warning to the offending side; faulting the offending side, if previously warned. Two such faults by a side shall be considered to be a persistent offence; or in cases of flagrant offence, persistent offences or breach of Law 16.2 the umpire shall fault the offending side and report the offending side immediately to the Referee, who shall have the power to disqualify the offending side from the match.

    This section of the BWF rules could be used to justify the umpire’s actions. He definitely warned both teams and they persisted in performing like it was the first time they’d ever played. I was actually quite pleased to see a sports federation take such decisive action

    • John Stackhouse

      Hmm. I’m not convinced, Brother Frank. I sincerely appreciate your digging out the rules for us, and all I can see pertaining to what happened is 16.6.4, the VERY vague idea of “misconduct.” Since the BWF (thanks, Brother Conrade) and the IOC had agreed on the kind of elimination regimen that prompted this behaviour, however, it is not yet clear to me that the players can be charged with “misconduct.” It was a straight line for them from losing in the first round to having a significantly better chance of winning in the next. So why in the world would they try to win THE FIRST ROUND if it clearly damaged their chances of winning THE GOLD MEDAL?

      Again, I blame the rulemakers: They put the players in an impossible situation. How well can one truly be expected to play in such a Catch-22 situation? Or do I misunderstand?

  5. Frank

    From the Players’ Code of Conduct:

    Inappropriate conduct
    4.1.1 During any match or at any time while within the precincts of the site of an BWF- sanctioned tournament, not conducting oneself in an honourable and sportsmanlike manner.
    4.5 Failure to use best efforts
    Not using one’s best efforts to win a match.

    “Why in the world would they try to win THE FIRST ROUND if it clearly damaged their chances of winning THE GOLD MEDAL?”

    Because failing to do so is in violation of the Players’ Code of Conduct?

    • John Stackhouse

      Good job, Brother Frank, tracking that down. I’ve done the same and concur.

      So now it is quite clear that the referee made the correct call: the players were obviously not using “their best efforts.”

      Where does that leave us?

      Now we do not have a conflict between the rules and the code. Now we have a conflict between what I will call rule A and rule B and also between rule A and the Code, since rule B confirms the Code.

      Rule A: The more you win in the first round, the tougher your opponent will be in the next. Implication: Play worse in the first round.

      Rule B & the Code: Always play your best.

      The absurd conflict at the heart of the situation remains, would you agree? Don’t play your best, or you might end up with a worse seeding for the next round–but play well enough that you can’t be accused of playing badly. The mistake the expelled teams made was to be transparent: transparently “going for the gold” instead of faking a good game.

      I maintain they were put in an impossible situation by the rulesmakers–and by the culture of winning above all else. What do you think?

  6. Frank

    I completely agree, Brother John, that the tournament format led to this problem in the first place, and I’m hoping they’ll change it for the next Olympics.

    More fascinating for me was the fact that the BWF chose to enforce their rules, even if it cost the tournament some of the best teams. It’s the only glimmer I’ve seen in this Olympics of the ideals on which the modern Olympics claim to have been founded.

  7. Tim

    The Olympic motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius (Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger”). Athletes break this all the time. Rarely have I seen someone who gains a commanding lead in a qualifying heat (swimming, track, rowing, cycling, whatever) keep pushing faster. Backing off is more likely the plan. In swimming, in fact, the announcers point this out as a legitimate tactic in order to conserve energy for the finals.


  8. Roger Laing

    For what it is worth I checked with one of my collegues today who actually did compete for Canada in Badminton in the Sydney Olympics to get his take on the Badminton situation in London. He confirmed: Athletes are expected to give their best efforts to win under both the rules of Badmnton and the Olympic code. He felt the disqualification was warrented and he holds that the newly introduced tournamnent format was an error that complicated th situation.

    From quite another angle I remember listening to the mens eights rowing team who won Gold in Barcelona. Another one of my colegeues was part of that team. At his wedding they made it very clear that while the “winning at all costs” mentality was strong and reinforced by the media within the athlectic comminity there remained a purity of doing ones best and indeed striving for “faster, highrer, stronger”


  9. Paul McClure

    Just in case anyone was wondering, the ATP has a similar rule for professional tennis players, and an umpire warned Nicolay Davydenko about “lack of effort” in a 2007 match he played against Marin Cilic. I encourage anyone who knows Russian to watch the video.


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