So eight Olympic badminton players have been caught throwing matches and have been dismissed from the London Games.
"An outrage!" The madding crowd cries. "Ban them!" "Fine them!" "Remove the gut from their rackets and use it to hang them!!" Some might say.
"They have made a mockery of the Olympic spirit! These players put the BAD in Badminton!!"
Others might be thinking these thoughts, but not me. I say step back, see the whole picture, and try to have a more nuanced opinion of this whole mess.
First things first: these players were not tanking games to earn money on betting sites. These players were throwing group matches because they had already qualified for the knockout stages and were trying to avoid tough teams in the quarterfinals. They were losing in order to, er, win. Still not the height of sportsmanship, but nowhere near as vile as throwing matches for money. Let's get that out of the way.
This whole brouhaha reminds me of two sorry incidents. The first was the 1998 Tiger Cup (now known as the Suzuki Cup), or the ASEAN Football Federation Championship. In the last game of Group A, Thailand met Indonesia in a match featuring two teams who had already qualified for the semifinals. The winner would top the group and meet host Vietnam, who surprisingly finished second in the other group. The loser would meet Group B winner Singapore.
It was obvious that neither Indonesia nor Thailand wanted to win. Both wanted to avoid dodge a date with Vietnam in front of a hostile home crowd. The defending was half-hearted all game. Indonesia went 2-1 up in the 84th minute but Thailand leveled two minutes later. Then in stoppage time Indonesian defender Mursyid Effendi scored the winner.... into his own net. Two Thai defenders furiously tried to stop him, but failed.
Because of the farcical nature of the game, FIFA fined both countries US$40,000 and banned Effendi for one year at club level, and for life in International football. Both Thailand and Indonesia lost their semifinal matchups.
Fast forward to 2006. It's the World 9 Ball Championship in the PICC in Manila. The format is a round-robin group stage followed by a knockout stage. Going into the last match of Group 11, Switzerland's Marco Tschudi was to meet Spain's David Alcaide. Mika Immonen was already at four points with two wins and a loss. An 8-6 win by Alcaide would mean that both he and the Swiss would qualify on four points, (Two points for a win, none for a loss) and Immonen would be eliminated on rack difference.
I was there watching the match. So were referees Mikaela Tabb and Nigel Rees, and Tournament Director Thomas Overbeck. Immonen was there too. Everyone felt something fishy might transpire.
Surprise, surprise, Alcaide won, 8-6. Immonen was so livid that he tried to speak to the players after the match but was verbally restrained by Overbeck.
The badminton stink in London reminds me of these situations because they all are products of flawed competition formats. Whenever you have round-robin groups, you risk tempting teams who have qualified early to lose on purpose to avoid other teams. Or, like in the pool tournament, manufacture a result that will allow both parties to progress.
And that's why I sympathize with these badminton players. They were put into this situation by a dumb-ass format, not because they are badly flawed, craven human beings.
The Chinese duo of Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang, and their South Korean foes Jung Kyun-eun and Kim Ha-na both wanted to avoid another Chinese pairing in the quarters. Had the two Chinese pairs met that early, that would have harpooned chances for multiple Chinese medals. The Koreans probably wanted to avoid the Chinese early because they were angling for an easier quarters match. So the four ladies, who were already assured of quarterfinal play, played like amateurs in their last group match to the boos of the crowd.
Apparently another Korean pair and an Indonesian pair did something similar in another group.
The tournament should have been either be single-elimination or double-elimination. That would have made every single match competitive. Or a blind draw after the group stages. Or another group stage after the initial group stage. Or, the two strongest teams should have met first. ANYTHING but this format.
After the debacle of 1998, the ASEAN Football Federation changed the scheduling of their group matches. Since the 2000 Tiger Cup, the last two games of each group stage have been played simultaneously, to prevent fixes.
For the 2007 World Pool Championship, the round-robin group stage was abandoned and replaced with a double-elimination group stage, to ensure that every single match would be played fairly.
In the 2016 Olympics, the badminton competition must also be revamped to avoid a redux of this scandal.
Another thought: perhaps the players did not decide to lose, but were ordered to by their coaches. China and Korea both have strict sporting cultures where your coach's word is law. Going against his wishes could have been unthinkable for these girls. Have the coaches admitted to asking their players to tank? Would they ever? Or might the orders to dump have come from higher up the Badminton hierarchies of the nations involved?
I am not saying that what the ladies did was right. For sure it wasn't. What I am saying is that they don't deserve to be raked across the coals alone. A bad format created by misguided organizers and possibly some unethical coaches or officials are equally culpable. These players might have been pawns in a game they could never win, stuck in the middle of terrible circumstances. I will give them the benefit of the doubt that maybe they did not act alone.
The consequences have been dire. China's Yu Yang, a former world champ and Olympic Gold medalist, has quit the sport, saying "You have heartlessly shattered our dreams" on her microblog.
I choose not to demonize these eight ladies. I hope you would be kind enough to do the same.
You can follow Bob Guerrero on Twitter @bhobg333.
Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.