Badminton debacle prompts soul-searching in China

August 2, 2012

— The Olympics badminton-match-fixing scandal that saw the expulsion of eight players — including Chinese doubles champions Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli — prompted heated debate here about whether this country’s quest for medals and glory had trumped the spirit of sportsmanship.

The disqualification of the Chinese players was the top trending topic on Chinese microblogging sites, with opinion mixed. Some blamed the rules system for putting teams in matches that didn’t count. A few defended Yu and Wang for smart strategizing. But many others said the real culprit was China’s obsession with its Olympic medals tally, particularly the thirst for gold above all else.

Yu and Wang said they were conserving their energy for the more important match to come later. But most fans seem to believe that the duo did not want to face another Chinese pair in a later elimination round — increasing the chance that two Chinese teams could advance to the final and win a spot on the medals podium.

“They are the victims of the gold-medal strategy,” said one microblogger, who used the name “Housecat 86.” The microblogger blamed Chinese coaches for pushing the players to place a higher value on winning medals than on winning the match.

A different microblogger, named “Footballnews Zhaozhen,” wrote: “They chose to avoid [playing] their teammates, to guarantee that China could win either way. . . . Now they have to suffer the consequences.”

Yu, the defending Olympic champion, appears to be quitting the sport altogether in the wake of the scandal. The Associated Press reported that a comment posted late Wednesday on a verified account for Yu on the Tencent microblogging service stated: “This is my last game. Farewell Badminton World Federation. Farewell my dear badminton.”

Chinese officials made no official announcement on Yu’s status.

The disqualification amounted to a national shame here at a time when China was still suffused with pride at emerging as an international sports powerhouse following its record medal haul at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Many are asking whether the winning-is-everything mentality has fostered a mentality where anything goes in the pursuit of gold.

“The incident sends a warning to the entire Chinese sports world,” wrote the Global Times, a daily newspaper owned by the Communist Party’s main mouthpiece, People’s Daily. “While carefully planning their winning strategy, they mustn't forget that the Chinese public also cares about how the medals are won.”

The paper noted that the other disqualified badminton players also came from Asia (South Korea and Indonesia, to be specific), where the obsession with winning seems especially strong.

“Gold medals have nothing to do with national strength, nothing to do with people’s daily life, nothing to do with people’s health,” wrote a microblogger who uses the name “Jidelai.”

“When a country still can’t take care of its elderly and sick patients, even more gold medals can’t prove that you’re not the sick man of East Asia.”

Media reports on the scandal also recalled other recent examples of how Chinese athletes have tried to game the rules in international contests. For example, in 2002 the Chinese women’s volleyball team was forced to apologize to fans after deliberately losing games to South Korea and Greece in early stage matches to draw a weaker opponent for the elimination rounds in that year’s women’s volleyball world championships.

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Chinese badminton was similarly tainted by controversy.

Two Chinese individual players, Gong Zhichao and Ye Zhaoying, faced off against each other in the semifinals. Their head coach, Li Yongbo, later admitted to state-run CCTV that he instructed Ye to throw the game to Gong, on the assumption that Gong would be the stronger player in the final.

Ye did lose to Gong, and Gong won gold against a Danish opponent, but her win was stained by the revelation of match-fixing.

“Chinese attitudes toward medals are changing, as seen from the London Games,” the Global Times said in an editorial. “The public is calling for more attention on silver and bronze medal winners.”

Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.

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