Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Olympians tossed for trying to lose are signs of a bigger issue

Throwing a match is considered one of the biggest taboos in sports. In fact that action is the opposite of sports, which is supposed to an honest and fair competition between entities.

Well tell that to the eight female badminton players who were tossed from Olympic competition Wednesday after the sport’s governing body deemed them to be trying to lose on purpose. The athletes came from China, South Korea and Indonesia. (The South Korean and Indonesian delegations are appealing the decision.)

But does the International Olympic Committee bear some responsibility for this turmoil? Quoting from the Associated Press article (via ESPN.com): “Teams blamed the introduction of a round-robin stage rather than a straight knockout tournament as the main cause of the problem. In the round-robin format, losing one game can lead to an easier matchup in the next round.”

The report does also point out that the fans voiced their displeasure with the teams’ quality (or lack of) during the matches in question.

In the major American sports, there has been speculation for years that teams set to miss the playoffs lose games (or at least do not put forth maximum effort) to enhance their draft positions. (See this Sporting News article on the 2011-12 NBA season.)

Both the Sporting News and the Associated Press articles rightly point out that fans are the biggest losers in this scenario. Maybe more creativity needs to be placed to incentivize athletes/teams to play every match as hard as they can.

Altering the structure of tournaments to emphasize winning each match is a possibility (or changing the draft structure of U.S. pro sports to encourage struggling teams to win as many games as possible and not worry about their draft positioning). Adding a bigger financial incentive could be another way to go: Perhaps teams that go unbeaten in tournaments receive a sizable bonus.

The punishment handed down to the eight badminton players likely will send a message to others contemplating doing something similar, but will this solve the problem? Or will players try just hard enough to look like they are attempting to win and subsequently avoid punishment?

Ultimately it is better to be proactive, seek out potential problems and solve them before they even become issues.

-- Steve Bien-Aimé

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