When Governing Bodies Become Jokes and Sport Suffers

This doesn’t have to do with Barça or football, really, but rather the wider world of sport. Today’s New York Times (along with basically every other media outlet in the world) carried an article about the badminton teams disqualified from the London Olympics for intentionally losing group stage matches in order to gain easier knockout round opponents.

There are several things worth mentioning from this kerfluffle:

Any sporting event that rewards losing under any circumstance is very likely to be a badly designed sporting event.

The concept of a sporting event in which losing can propel you to an easier route is one that has not been properly thought through. I may not like the ever-expanding Champions League format (everyone qualifies!), but it does do one thing quite correctly: the teams who qualify first from their group stage play teams who qualified second from their group stage. This is the same as the Olympic badminton rules to this point, but the twist is that the Champions League has a random draw after the first round. Badminton has a set path (A1 plays C2, B1 plays D2, C1 plays A2, and D1 plays B2) so going into the final group game, you might already know your possible opponents based on the various possible outcomes of your own as-of-yet unplayed game.

While the theory behind A1-B2, B1-A2 is good, the fact that there is no random assignment of opponents in the next round causes there to be a strategic option in which losing is actually better for you in the long run than winning. That is not a flaw of the participants, but rather a flaw in the overall structure of the system.

All sports involve strategy.

Simon Jenkins, writing in The Guardian (via Andrew Sullivan), makes a great point:

Faced with the risk of a tougher opponent later and thus losing a medal, the [badminton] players did what their tacticians said. They lost a round. I cannot see how, in sporting terms, this is any different from sprint cyclists hovering for an age on a curve, waiting for the right moment to surge forward.

Though sprint cyclists are actually trying to win that particular race via strategy, the badminton players have made a strategic decision that they see as increasing their likelihood of winning further matches and putting themselves in position to ultimately win the crown. To me it’s the same as Mourinho attempting to not lose by too much against Barça in the semifinals of the 2009-10 Champions League. Never once did they really attempt to win the match, but that does not make it an illegal or punishable offense; it is merely a consequence of the home and home format.

Further, it should be noted that the opponents the badminton players were attempting to avoid, the Chinese pair of Tian Qing and Zhao Yunlei, had actually come in second in their group (by accident or design I do not know, but I suspect the former). The suspended pairs were obviously attempting to avoid them, but in so doing they were taking the risk that the Danish duo of Christinna Pedersen and Kamilla Rytter Juhl had actually defeated their opponents fairly and were better. It would be completely perfect if Pedersen and Juhl went on to win the gold.

Rules such as those used to disqualify the badminton players (“not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport” according to NYT) are excuses used by embarrassed governing bodies.

It is virtually a law that governing bodies (political, athletic, or other) are fiercely incapable of real-time self-criticism. Instead of recognizing the ways in which the rules were used to benefit the competitors in a way that is, except for the extremely subject sense of “best efforts”, not illegal and fixing it for the next time around, badminton officials (that these exist is humorous given my own gym class experiences with the sport*) reacted with punitive measures far beyond even the supposed infraction. The competitors aren’t accused of accepting bribes and they’re not accused of collusion with other pairs to further their nation’s progress. Rather they’re looking out exclusively for themselves and are attempting to win the entire tournament.

That badminton officials** can’t see beyond the anger of those who went to see the matches and were upset by the level of play and are most likely too embarrassed to make public amends for their own failures as a governing body. Instead, they chose the heavy-handed route of outrage (OUTRAGE!) over such a terrible thing as their sport being taken so seriously and the stakes being so high that one would enter into the best possible route to victory rather than the most TV-friendly early-round matches.

All this posturing on the part of governing bodies is wearisome. What makes FIFA so hateable is its unwillingness to conduct self-criticism or, perhaps more importantly, to accept that the purpose of criticism is not always destruction. Sepp Blatter routinely makes egregiously out-of-touch statements about the game, handles issues that arise with all the deftness of an elephant playing jacks, and is completely tone deaf in almost all of his responses to media questioning. The same sounds true of the badminton officials. These Olympics have had their fair share of controversies, including Shin A Lam’s controversial loss to Britta Heidemann in women’s individual epee, which is no real surprise given the subjective nature of a lot of judging. Badminton is not particularly subjective, I don’t believe, so the questions are more procedural than they are sporting.

The Olympics is big business and that means huge prizes for the winners and much less (if anything at all) for everyone else.

The idea that the Olympics is anything other than a business died long ago. If you want proof, look no further than João Havelange being the International Olympic Committee chairman for so long. The cost of the Olympics and the potential profits are monstrous. The ad space and “official sponsor” crap is as prevalent if not more prevalent at the Olympics than in other sporting events. Given that, winning a gold medal in an extremely popular sport is worth a ton—and probably still worth a lot in unpopular sports. It has thus gone beyond “pure sportsmanship” (whatever that is). We as football fans live this on a daily basis and are probably pretty much immune to it at this point.

While controversies are not always bad for sport (Did the shuttlecock cross the line? Tune in next week for the eagerly-anticipated rematch!), routine dismissal of teams for playing within the rules but not being particularly sporting about it is a transparent attempt to have your cake and eat it too. To be angry that teams participating in eagerly awaited, sold-out, heavily televised matches are not focused entirely on the spirit of sportsmanship is just a load of crap dropped by that jacks-playing elephant. What football has going for it is that it has accepted controversy into its worldview: RFEF alone has fully accepted that physical assault on opposing coaches is okay, so long as you’re driving up the ratings. Dani Benitez, on the other hand, is scum. And we all keep watching, riveted.

Badminton will deal with these controversies (There were two shuttlecocks on the court!), but as a sport that has not received the international recognition that it obviously craves, it must be more flexible and more capable of foresight. Borrowing the core concepts of round-robin play followed by a randomly assigned knockout stage would be a pretty easy yet large step forward. Instead, we’re talking about how stupid they are and how little I want to watch any of the badminton matches left in these Games.

In conclusion, governing bodies are just a bunch of shuttlecocks.

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*obviously they involved the word “shuttlecock” said as much as possible

**I can’t help but imagine a boardroom full of ex-players seriously discussing shuttlecock shape and size, their impassioned arguments augmented by PowerPoint presentations on the history of the shuttlecock.