The Olympic controversy of the day is from badminton—a sport I follow religiously. Four women’s doubles teams, including the top-ranked Chinese team, were disqualified for trying to lose their matches so that they would get more favorable match-ups in the next round.
Shocking! Though not really. When the rules of the tournament create incentives to lose a match, is it a surprise that highly competitive athletes will do what the rules allow them to do if it helps their prospects of winning? Indeed, one might criticize them for not doing so. How is trying to do their best to win the tournament either unethical or unsportsmanlike? It’s not like they threw the match to get a payoff from some bookie or hired some thug to take a crowbar to their opponent’s kneecap. People say they ripped off fans who paid a lot of money to see world-class play. But is failing to please fans the definition of sportsmanship?
Trying to lose always sounds sort of unsportsmanlike. But there are lots of legitimate ways that athletes under-perform for strategic advantage. A basketball player will intentionally miss a free throw. A quarterback will take a knee. A defensive back will swat down a ball he could have intercepted. A pitcher will walk a batter to create force-outs or to bypass the biggest bat of the opponents. Top players will sit out unimportant games to preserve their health for games that matter. And all of these things have the potential to cause fans to boo and hiss, but everyone knows the under-performance is for legitimate strategic reasons. (Intentionally throwing games to get a higher position in next years draft is a little ethically more suspect, I think, but maybe not.) The badminton players were under-performing for strategic advantage within the context of the rules of the tournament they were trying to win. Should we expect anything different?
The real villains here, of course, are the sports officials who write lofty and vague codes of conduct requiring athletes to behave one way, but then incentivize them to behave another, creating unnecessary conflicts for the athletes. Shame on them.
In the women’s gymnastics qualifying round, reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber finished fourth in the All-Around qualifying events, but is disqualified from competing because only two athletes from each country can qualify, and two American girls were ahead of her. So, 21 other young women with inferior performance get a chance to compete, and Jordyn has to bite the bitter pill. A Russian, Brit, and Chinese faced the same fate so that the 28th placing Australian can have a chance to compete.
This type of multinational affirmative action is disgusting for many reasons. But it can also create powerful incentives that could be very damaging. Imagine a young woman who is part of a team that has a highly authoritarian leadership—a given in places like China. Assume the top performer stumbles a bit, and the third-ranked member of the team is told by her coach that she has to throw the competition to preserve a spot for the top-ranked player who was facing elimination. Not to hard to imagine.
It would be nice if the athletes, who are the ones paying with blood, sweat and tears, could be assured the opportunity to compete without political influence by officials whose incentives are very different from the competitors.
Of course the same also holds true outside the world of sport.