LONDON — Who knew badminton, that game of the bored-silly rich and the backyard dads, could be so . . . bad? The first serve went into the net, and then the next serve went into the net. There was a return, and it went under the net. So now the shuttlecock contingent has rewritten the Olympic motto, Swifter, Higher, Stronger. It’s become Swifter, Higher, Don’t Lift A Finger.
In the Olympian standoff between China and South Korea at Wembley Arena, one team nobly tanked while the other magnanimously dumped, setting off a contagion of match-throwing, fixing and take-a-diving, until eight athletes had to be expelled from the London Games. It’s the best comedy bit of the year: on one side of the net, see the Chinese pair Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang tick the birdie as enthusiastically as a couple of bored housekeepers flicking dust-rags in a motel room. On the other side, see the Koreans Jung Kyung-eun and Kim Ha-na chase it as energetically as a couple of sleeping corgis.
Now, if badminton has any appeal as an Olympic sport, it’s a game of quickness. The birdie — pardon me, shuttlecock — can move at speeds of 200 mph. Not in this Olympics, it doesn’t. In this Olympics, there is more motion from retired wing commanders dozing over their canes. In this Olympics, there is more action in a game of darts in a pub just before closing. In this Olympics the point isn’t to win, but to lose strategically in group play — and apparently as lethargically, flagrantly and obviously as possible — to manipulate your round-robin bracket and draw an easier opponent. “Depressing,” said chairman of the London Olympic organizing committee Sebastian Coe. Well, yeah, but also yelpingly funny.
Unless you are Thomas Lund, the gravely blazered chief operating officer of the Badminton World Federation. (Yes, there is one, and I think its headquarters are in the Duke of Beaufort’s garden.) Lund was forced to hold an emergency disciplinary conference late in the night, to review the tape. It showed this: a domino effect that began when the Chinese pair, who are, get this, world champions, tried to go down on purpose to stay on the opposite side of the draw from their Chinese countrywomen, Tian Qing and Zhao Yunlei. The Koreans responded by lying down, too — as did a second Korean pair, provoking their Indonesian opponents to absolutely lay down flat. All in full view of a British audience, which, being accustomed to pretty good theater, became thoroughly disgusted and rained down boos and shouts of “Get off!”
By 11 a.m. Wednesday, Lund disqualified all eight players for “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.” This was one instance when there was none of the fussing around we see so often from Olympics officials, who have a sizeable tolerance for all sorts of crookedness. Take the tepid response of International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, who attended the badminton earlier on Tuesday but left shortly before the scandal. Rogge refused to comment, and instead the IOC released this statement: “The IOC takes note of the Badminton Federation’s decision to disqualify eight athletes after their unsporting behavior during yesterday’s competition.” Takes note?
The smart cynic will be tempted to ho-hum the whole thing, between shuttlecock jokes, because it’s only badminton, right? As Deadspin’s Drew Magary says, “I eagerly await the IOC’s decision to approve plastic horseshoes as a sport in 2016.” Anyway, it’s pretty much impossible to violate the spirit of an event as corrupt as the Olympics. And don’t we see subtle varieties of tanking all the time in professional sports? How about NFL teams that bench their starters before the playoffs, or NBA teams that throw games to position themselves for the lottery? Is tanking so much different from pacing? Badminton apologists were already rationalizing the behavior of the Chinese, Koreans and Indonesians by saying the Olympic tournament should never have been a round robin. If it had been single elimination, everyone would have behaved.
But the trouble is, something deep down tells us that people who throw a game should have their necks stepped on, no matter how silly the event. For one thing, it defrauds spectators who in this case paid anywhere from $40 to $120 for a seat. “Who wants to sit through something like that?” Coe said. London organizers weren’t so moved, however, that they offered a refund. Paul Deighton, chief executive of the London committee, said “You get into all sorts of strange precedents if people aren’t satisfied with what they see. You don’t want to get into that territory because it’s gray and dangerous territory.”
Watching the badmintoners dump that birdie in the net, you couldn’t help thinking back to other alleged dives. A famous occasion in 1981 when Ivan Lendl lost a set to Jimmy Connors in 17 minutes, apparently so he could meet Gene Mayer rather than Bjorn Borg in the semifinal of a round robin. “Chicken,” Connors sneered. A 1988 regular season finale when the San Francisco 49ers seemed to take a dive against the L.A. Rams to eliminate the New York Giants from the postseason, making Giants quarterback Phil Simms so angry he accused the 49ers of “laying down like dogs.”
What the best Olympians know, the real greats who bring it every day and every night, is that tanking isn’t strategic. It’s just weak. Every time you give less than your best, you take a little chip out of yourself. And the spectators sense it, too. That’s why, under all the badminton gags there is a tone, isn’t there? It’s the sound of contempt.
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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