Friday, August 3, 2012

Sometimes you win by losing

Who would've thought the biggest Olympic scandal to date would be in the field of women's badminton?

Four doubles teams have been sent packing for deliberately losing matches in the group stage of the Olympic tournament. For some unknown reason it was decided to put the teams into groups and have the top teams from each group advance to the elimination rounds.

Much like the World Cup, the quarterfinal match-ups would be set in advance and not on the basis of seeding. So, going into the competition, each team was aware of who their potential foes in the knock-out rounds could be.

Thus there was a perverse incentive to lose in order to avoid being matched up with a certain team. Each of the teams that were found to have tanked their matches ended up with better match-ups in the quarterfinals after losing than they would have had they won.

Of course the Badminton World Federation and the International Olympic Committee could have none of that gamesmanship. This is the Olympics after all and the competition must be sacrosanct (well, except for all the sports that decided to toss out the amateur ideal and let the pros get their games on). The two bodies made it quite clear that tanking a match on purpose just isn't good cricket and decided to put the hammer down without even considering that it was the way they organized the tournament that created the incentive to lose.

Now maybe tanking a match isn't the most sporting thing one can do, but if the name of the game is trying to get your hands around that gold medal, then why should we condemn athletes for making decisions that enhance their chances of standing on the podium and hearing their national anthems blaring over the PA system?

Teams in the NFL who have locked down their seeding in the playoffs are lauded for resting their starters in meaningless games down the stretch. Baseball teams out of the playoff race are encouraged to unload their star players and put out glorified minor league lineups the last month of the season. How does that differ from what happened in London on the badminton courts?

The problem isn't that the teams found a way to game the system. The problem is that the system was set up in such a way as to reward teams for gaming it. Don't blame a competitor for working the angles and increasing his chances of competing for gold; blame the folks who gave them the incentive to lose.

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