Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Badminton! Very, VERY Badminton!

Alright, let's talk about the Badminton scandal. For those of you who don't subscribe to the Fox Badminton Channel, eight women from China, South Korea, and Indonesia were thrown out of the Olympic Doubles Badminton tournament for trying to throw matches. The teams were throwing the matches in order to get a lower seed- and thus, a better opponent- in the elimination stage of the tournament. Watch the video of the South Korea/Indonesia match. It's almost hilariously bad. Honey Badmintoner don't care.

And I'm not sure I do, either; I like a little strategy in my sports. Gamesmanship is what makes this about more than just being naturally faster or stronger. That being said, I can't deny that the performance put on by these athletes was really unfair to the viewers, and maybe to the Olympic community as a whole.

I just know that the Olympic Community only has itself to blame.

First of all, the structure of the tournament allowed for this kind of sandbagging. Other tournaments- other badminton tournaments, even- do not. The major U.S. sports leagues offer home court advantage for the team with the most wins, so there's incentive to win out. The Badminton World Federation sets up its major events as plain old single-elimination tournaments, so there's the strongest incentive of all to win every match. There are ways to avoid situations like this, or at least to minimize them.

But, more importantly, the Olympics have just made winning Gold too big a deal to turn around and whine about sportsmanship. There's too many endorsements tied to Gold. Too much money. Too much prestige and fame. The national committees can only justify their existence with Gold Medals, so they put too much pressure on the athletes to go for it at almost any cost. Countries crown athletes as national heroes. I hear the sex is tremendous. Faced with that incentive structure, it's almost perverse to get mad at athletes for trying to work the system as much as they can.

Which isn't to say that the players are blameless; I can't watch that video and argue that they were being "good sports". And if you subscribe to the Joe DiMaggio theory of sports- every game is someone's first, and they deserve to see you give your all- then this should disappoint you greatly. My point is simply that the Olympic community has spent the last several years downplaying the importance of sportsmanship and what the fans deserve (you only need to try to follow NBC's coverage to get that last part).

It'd be different if this really were the Platonic Ideal of the Olympics- the countries coming together for the pure love of sports and athletics and competition, and determining a winner, while important, is secondary to just getting out on the field. But it's not; the Olympic Community has decided that Gold Medals are incredibly important. The national teams have decided to go all out to obtain them. And that's all okay; there's nothing wrong with going all out to be the best. But as that is the situation, I think this badminton scandal is only a couple degrees away from the Bears resting their starters in Week 16 after they've secured a playoff spot, or a swimmer going 75% in a qualifying heat. It's just pressing every advantage. If the goal is to win Gold, that's what you have to do.

If the Olympic Community wants to make the goal something else, I can grok that. I don't really think it's necessary; I think determination, long-term thinking, and cleverness are perfectly cromulent skills to celebrate. But if the IOC disagrees, I'm fine with that, too. We just need to understand that if we expect athletes to live up to our Platonic Ideals of sportsmanship, we need to make sure the incentive structure does so, first.

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