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Is tanking scandal really so bad?
It was Day Five of the London Olympics, and, finally, we had our first bona fide sporting scandal of the games (instead of just the whisper-and-innuendo doping scandal swirling around the record-setting Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen).
On Tuesday night, Wembley Arena filled with boos as a pair of Chinese badminton athletes in the women’s doubles event didn’t even try to win. They hit their serves into the net, purposefully trying to lose a match to ensure a favorable draw in the knockout portion of the tournament and avoid the other top-ranked Chinese pair until the final. Two South Korean teams and an Indonesian team followed suit in this Olympic farce.
On Wednesday, the eight Olympians got smacked down when the Badminton World Federation disqualified them from the Olympics.
But there was another problem here, other than the absurdity of Olympians training their lives for this moment and then getting stuck on a race to the bottom.
This was an Olympic-sized branding problem.
If only the Chinese had called it Fold For Gold.
Now that’s something all Americans could have gotten behind.
Remember last fall, when the American media were consumed by an American race to the bottom — and not tut-tutting about it, but instead reveling in it?
"Suck for Luck" was a media creation that became one of the biggest storylines of the second half of the NFL season. Fans across the country hoped and prayed that their team, whether it was the Indianapolis Colts or the St. Louis Rams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Cleveland Browns, would fumble, bumble and stumble their way to the worst record of the 2011 NFL season.
Because that would give them the first pick in the 2012 NFL draft. And that would mean the right to draft all-world Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.
For a solid two months, Suck for Luck became an all-out media blitz. Fans got behind it, hoping for their teams to lose. Suddenly an otherwise-meaningless Week 17 game between the Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars was infused with meaning.
The Colts, the thinking went, could win by losing. This was a good thing, the thinking went. And it worked: They got Luck.
Just as it was a good thing that the Memphis Grizzlies tanked the last couple of games of the 2010-2011 NBA season, ensuring they’d meet the San Antonio Spurs instead of the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs. This was a good thing, and it worked: They swept the Spurs.
So when an overflowing press conference hammered the head of the Badminton World Federation for 40 minutes on Wednesday after the eight Olympians had been disqualified, the moralistic line of questioning ran rather hollow. Like this one, from a Bloomberg reporter: “Why should badminton remain an Olympic sport?”
The moralism becomes even more absurd when put alongside the first Chinese controversy of the London Games. We were furious at Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen for possibly trying too hard, for perhaps engaging in doping, even though she passed the drug test; we were furious at the Chinese badminton players for not trying hard enough.
None of this is to say that what the Chinese pair of Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang started and six other Olympians continued exemplified Olympic fair play. They clearly violated their Olympic oath of sportsmanship, not to mention the bylaws of their own governing organization, which compel all players to give their “best efforts to win a match” and avoid “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.”
Players and coaches alike were disgusted with Tuesday night’s pathetic display, even if match-throwing has been a well-known problem in badminton in the past.
“It’s a crazy thing they have done, and this is the consequence of what they did,” Martin Kranitz, the team leader of Germany’s badminton team, told FOXSports.com.
“I want to see what the embassy of China will do right now, because this is not very funny for them. They have to explain why they did this. This sport is very big in China.”
Said Finn Traerup-Hansen, manager of the Danish team: “There are conflicting messages in the Olympics. I represent the team from a national team point of view, and our funding is coming through mainly due to medals at the Olympics and world championships.
"Why should I not think our best mixed-doubles pair, if they were in that half (of the tournament), they would have the best chance at winning a medal? That’s one side of the story: We are pushed by our national governing bodies to produce medals. The other side of it is the idea of the Olympics.”
This match-throwing scandal isn’t the Black Sox scandal, folks. It’s a natural byproduct of badminton’s round-robin format, combined with the Olympic obsession (at least in the United States and China) with improving your country’s standing in the medal count. It’s what happens when the blatant nationalism of the Olympics collides with the Games’ pure-but-naive ideals.
But for American moralizers to be the ones up in arms when we’ve applauded our own similar creations, such as Suck for Luck, is the height of hypocrisy.
What ticked us off most about the Chinese badminton players who started this shuttlecock charade isn’t simply that they tried to lose their match and give their country the best shot at both gold and silver.
No, it wasn’t what they did that made us so angry. It’s that they didn’t sell it.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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