THE OTHER STORY OF THE LONDON 2012 BADMINTON “ CIRCUS ” “
Because Every Circus Has A Ringmaster . by thebadmintoncircus com
copyright © 2012
[ps/ this story would not have been possible without the full support of gd and hg in putting together the bahasa indonesia version, and cw for her firm support.]
The Writer the writer has worked with the eight girls during her tenure at the badminton world federation, and has built friendships with some of them to know that the charges made on them at london 2012 have misrepresented the generous personality and tenacious spirit they have always, always exuded as elite athletes. and so she writes with the belief that in a world of darkness and chaos, there can still be light and reason. that the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. © [e] email@example.com
always ask questions.
Chapter i: The circus that wasn’t quite what everyone (thought they) saw | 04
Chapter ii: Where was the ringmaster? the ringmasters vs the victims | 07
Chapter iii: A case of social injustice how the case was mishandled | 12
Chapter iv: And the circus lives on where does the sport go from here | 17
Chapter v: Fight the good fight time to rebuild, time to heal | 21
Chapter i The circus that wasn’t quite
Lest we forget, every circus has a ringmaster. A “circus” was said to have taken center stage on the evening of 31 July, 2012, at the London 2012 Olympics badminton competition in Wembley Arena. Four women’s doubles pairs (eight girls) from China, South Korea and Indonesia were charged for tanking their preliminary group matches that evening. All four pairs have already qualified for the quarterfinals as the top two pairs in their respective groups, and had been playing out for a 1-2 ranking in their groups. Tanking in sports is the behaviour of deliberately losing a game for the benefit of a future competitive advantage. It is rightly distasteful as it is normally driven by the desire to gain a competitive advantage that one is not deserving of. But what if, you are regaining a rightful advantage that was robbed from you after someone else messed it up? On July 31 morning, an upset in one of the women’s doubles group match resulted in the second seeds from China finishing in second in their group instead of first. The
‘twist’ of events meant if logic prevailed where the Chinese top seeds won their group match and topped their group that evening, they would have a premature meeting with the second seeds in the semifinal. A loss would avoid that. The top two seeds met twice this year, both in the finals of two highest-tier events, with a 1-1 record. June’s Indonesia Open saw the world number 1 winning only in three games. While in March’s All-England Open, the world number 2 beat the world number 1 in straight games. After an unbeaten run in 2011, the Chinese top seeds (Wang/Yu) were hit with a slump at the start of 2012. In January, Wang/Yu lost to the Korean third seeds (Kim/Ha), then to the Chinese second seeds (Tian/Zhao) in March. Winning two of three Superseries Premier finals, Tian/Zhao is in fact the most successful this year. Would Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei (top seed) have fancied meeting China’s Lin Dan (second seed) in the semifinal if this have occurred in the men’s singles event? If not then the situation goes far beyond the simplistic intent for the top seeds wanting to ‘help’ their teammates. The thing is, there was no guarantee at that stage of the competition to assure China or the top seeds that ‘helping’ their teammates will amount to a medal (or two). The only guarantee at that stage was it regained their own competitive advantage they have had for being top seeds. The principle of seeding in a badminton competition is such that players had earned for themselves a competitive advantage according to their seed, the higher a seed, the
greater the competitive advantage. In other words, the top seeds get to be ‘protected’ from meeting their toughest opponents (in principle, second seeds) until the final. 3/4 seeds are ‘protected’ from the top seeds until the semis. If this principle is violated, the game is simply broken. It was not a ‘loophole’ or ‘exploitation’, it was broken. There is scientific logic behind game design, and chaos is inevitable and expected in the absence of logic. The Chinese were not in control of how the South Koreans think. The coaches involved would understandably be under immense pressure to restore their players’ competitive advantage in a broken system, and acted out of protective instincts. It was but survival instincts at work. It was not a matter of if coaches had ‘instructed’ players to tank their matches; players and coaches act as a team in deciding on the strategy and tactics in a match. It was a matter of how and why did four different teams from three countries behaved the same way? And what does that reveal of the sport? If you have one wayward child, you could blame it on having a difficult child. But if three of your children behave waywardly, you’d likely have only yourself to blame.
Chapter ii Where was the ringmaster?
On 31 July, spectators had to watch eight lackluster girls from three different countries play logic-defying matches at the Olympics. Little did the spectators know the eight girls were entrapped in a broken game. The Chinese top seeds lost; the Korean third seeds scheduled to play later then dragged their feet to a dismal win as the ‘crossover draw rule’ meant the winner would meet the previous match’s losers in the quarterfinal. Then on 1 August 2012, the eight girls were expelled from the Olympic Games for breaching two clauses in the Players Code of Conduct: 4.5 Not using one’s best effort to win the match; 4.16 Conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.
But should or could the Players Code of Conduct even stand if its very fundamental purposes do not hold? According to the publicly available BWF Players Code of Conduct, the “purposes of the Code” are: 1.1 To ensure and maintain an orderly and fair administration and conduct for BWF-sanctioned
tournaments, and to protect the players’ rights and the respective rights of the BWF, sponsors, and the public 1.2 To uphold the good name of the BWF and the integrity of the sport of Badminton worldwide.
And we raise three questions: (i) Was there an orderly and fair administration and conduct of the tournament, (ii) were the rights of the eight girls protected, and (iii) did BWF uphold the integrity of the sport in London? Uncannily, exactly a week before the tanking fiasco, BWF had drawn up a London 2012 competition schedule that did not comply with Rule 16.4 of their own General Competition Regulations. This had to be pointed out by the team managers. BWF were then forced to reschedule. We know by 31 July noon, a broken game had arisen after an upset. The cause was a combination of format flaw and (another) scheduling oversight. How culpable is it of BWF to not have intervened at that point, if not earlier? Players had in fact gone on-the-record with the media even before Tuesday to discuss the possibility of a tanking situation just basing on the evening’s schedule alone. This is on top of similar tanking behavior in the sport at the 2008 Thomas Cup - of which corrected measures have since been put in place - tanking is clearly an ‘old crime’. How do we define what is fair? For punishment fitting a crime, there also exist reward fitting the effort. That, in a fair world (or work environment), we were taught that success (or rewards) is proportionate to hard work (or efforts).
Any system that ‘over-rewards’ or ‘under-rewards’ will be perceived as unfair or inequitable by a human being. It is normal - not criminal - behavior that one’s motivation is reduced, and they perceived being unfairly treated, if they have to put in more effort than another for a lesser reward. Performance psychologists termed this the Equity Theory. The competition on 31 July evening was one where eight players were trapped in a broken system, where the end reward diminishes with greater effort in relation to their opponents’ effort. An unfair competition was perceived. More effort Less reward Is it not abusive to demand an athlete to compete in this system? This is the Olympic Games. Not Nintendo. It was like saying to prisoners trapped in a prison on fire (and the janitor allowing it to burn) that the death penalty awaits them if they try to get out of the burning prison to save themselves. It is a lose-lose situation. Previously, in the knock-out format of the badminton Olympics competition, doubles pairs would reach the quarterfinals after winning one match. In the new format in London, these pairs had to play three matches to reach the quarterfinals, then had their winning odds diminished. It is impossible in a knock-out format for the top seed to meet the second seed until the final, nor will the third and fourth seeds meet the top seed in the quarterfinals. If a seed is knocked out prematurely, unlucky for them, but it does not diminish the competitive advantage of others.
It is slightly different in team sports such as basketball where countries qualify for the Olympics via continental qualifying tournaments, and seeds are just world rankings over a 8-year period gaining points from a few FIBA events each year. Accuracy of team seeds is debatable, as the seeds are often not earned by players in the current roster. But in badminton, Olympics qualification is by virtue of earning a required world ranking. To get one of the top four doubles seed for competitive advantage, pairs would have to maintain a whole year of consistent performance to ensure they finish in the top four of the world ranking by the end of an Olympics qualification year. It is the governing body’s responsibility to ensure that its seeding principle and Olympics qualification format is in sync with its Olympics competition format. If a new format cannot adhere to the seeding principles then it first betrays the full year’s worth of best effort the top four seeds had put in to win and qualify for a seed. Yet two of these four seeds were expelled in disgrace. This is not condoning the behavior of the eight players on 31 July but rather this is asking: Was their ‘crime’ misrepresented? How fair was the punishment, really? That “best efforts” can be as subjective as is football’s diving, time wasting, fouls and other tackles, where the role of a referee is to exercise firm judgment during play. Football referees don’t get to watch replays. At times he consults his assistants.
But as the standard-bearer and enforcer of rules and conduct, referees must take a firm decision against misconduct on the spot. Opening a case after a match has concluded is questioning the referee’s ability to judge. If so, then the question is how could the referees not be dismissed, too, after failing to enforce a standard of conduct on Tuesday evening? Does it not weaken the sport’s integrity for the rest of the competition in London? A black card was waved, then rescinded, just revealed how unsure the referees were of the ethical standards. Tanking in the second match would have been avoided if punishment for misconduct were enforced in the first. If the tournament referees were in doubt of their judgment after the first match, then the second match of the evening should have been suspended since the game was broken. But to allow play under the same circumstance, and then to expel players based on “video replays” betrays the faith the players had in the role of referees, and of the impartiality of refereeing and governance in this sport. Did Argentina get disqualified when video replays revealed Maradona’s ‘hand of God’? No. But Ali Bin Nasser who refereed this 1986 FIFA World Cup quarterfinal match was disgraced and had reportedly received death threats for his ‘crime’. So what made badminton any different? How did the disgrace fall entirely, proportion, onto the players in this sport?
Chapter iii A case of social injustice
For all the positive human values the Olympic spirit stands for, it is irreconcilable that eight girls were heinously misrepresented on the biggest sporting stage. According to the Olympic Charter (126.96.36.199) - “The Mission and Role of the International Federations (IF) within the Olympic movement is to establish and enforce, in accordance with the Olympic spirit, the rules concerning the practice of their respective sports and to ensure their application”. If the administration of an Olympic sport was not fully in line with the Olympic spirit to begin with, then the IF has little premise to stand on to charge its athletes for a breach of conduct and of the Olympic spirit. Yet it is vital to stress that IOC never did pressured BWF to disqualify the eight players. BWF was trusted to solve the crisis as a responsible Federation. IOC will conduct its evaluation of all 26 sports only after the Games have ended. By the 2013 IOC Session next September, decisions will be made to include any new sports bidding to get into the 2020 programme, and if so, then current sports will be cut to make way for them.
Seven sports (baseball-softball, karate, roller sports, sports climbing squash, wakeboard, wushu) are bidding to get into 2020 Olympics, but only a maximum of 28 sports can be on the programme (Olympic Charter 188.8.131.52). London 2012 had only 26 sports as baseball and softball were cut after Athens 2004. Golf and Rugby 7s were voted into the programme in 2011 so that Rio 2016 will see a full roster again. This means for new a sport entering the 2020 programme, a current sport may be cut. But the evaluation of an Olympic sport is also a very holistic one – and it is highly unlikely a sport will be cut if the overall success and benefits of keeping the sport in the Olympics outweigh the ‘hiccups’. No sport is proofed from issues. This was likely why other sports let their cases rest. At London 2012, eventual silver medalists in women’s football, Japan, admitted to not going for a win against South Africa in the preliminary group stage with the intention of getting a better draw. The match drew 1-1. FIFA did not open a case. Neither did FIBA, when eventual silver medalists in men’s basketball, Spain, lost a group match against Brazil albeit its favourable position to win the game. Speculations were driven by that it was a group match where the losers would avoid the USA Dream Team until the final. IAAF attempted to expel Taoufik Makhloufi for similar behavior but reinstated him after medical evidence justified his lack of effort. Makhloufi won the gold a day later.
But in badminton, in less than 20 hours, eight players were disqualified and disgraced. The world then called that the greatest scandal of the 2012 Olympics. It is highly unsettling a death penalty can be issued in such haste, and to misdirect the world to celebrate what could be a compromising of human rights. While on the surface, BWF appeared to have taken a strong stand against ethical misconduct, demonstrative of good governance, but if all of that had only come at neglecting the rights and dignity of players (Principles of Olympism), then BWF have failed the Olympic Charter too. A disciplinary committee and appeal panel made up of BWF Council Members from Africa, Europe, Pan America and Oceania was set up in London to conduct a hearing of the case on the morning of 1 August. The South Koreans then appealed the verdict, but it was bound for a rejection. It will be reasonable to question the impartiality of the hearing of which BWF was the judge, when the case was effectively a dispute between the players and BWF. With the next BWF Council Elections taking place in May 2013, the potential conflict of interests is more so than ever. In fact, it states in BWF’s own Disciplinary Regulation 32.1 That a person who may have a conflict of interest shall not be a member of the decision-making body. Likewise, the Athletes Commission (AC), whose role is to protect players’ rights, then supported BWF’s decision. The players involved were left puzzled why the AC did not
speak to them. The AC is also part of the BWF Council. Instead of standing as ‘counsel’ for the eight players, whose rights should not be any less of the majority’s, the misplacement of the AC’s role in the judicial process and administration indicates a prejudgment on the eight girls. Then why did the players not take this case to a third party a la the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS)? Going to CAS involves a multitude of considerations and a dilemma for the three nations involved, as it meant going ‘public’ instead of settling the dispute internally to avoid threatening the sport’s Olympics position. All Member Associations (MA) have long been told of the importance for the sport to remain in the Olympics as majority of the BWF income is from the Olympics. Besides a cut in revenue for the BWF, losing the Olympics status means a cut in governmental funding for MAs. The publicly available BWF Annual Report 2011 states that 11.1 million of BWF annual income is expected from the Olympics and is currently BWF’s main income source, that goes towards mainly the global “development” of the sport and internal “governance” expenditure. (Not that China, Indonesia and South Korea had to worry as they are amongst the most ‘self-sufficient’ MAs, and of whom BWF have to in fact heavily rely on to host its major events and to employ the top stars in the sport.) In the end, it should not be ignored that there had been a dramatic difference in behavior and in response between
BWF and other International Federations. This should raise deeper questions on the heart of this controversy. The utopian view of a “true” champion means to be able to beat everyone and to win every match. Yet there has long been a gap between the reality and the rhetoric. We see in Olympic time-based sports, such as swimming and athletics, champions and record holders do not always care about winning their heats in the name of conserving energy, and that has never been contended. We see in team sports where key players are rested in the group stages as part of the ‘team strategy’ to advance furthest into the competition. Even as the ‘second team’ played to their best efforts in a match but as a team, collectively, it is arguably not the team’s “best effort”. Is it truly a rundown or clean up of ethical misconduct? Is it the greatest scandal or a case of social injustice? There are always, always, two sides to a coin.
Chapter iv And the circus lives on
The London 2012 competition may have ended, but the circus lives on. The circus was never about the eight girls; an act does not make a circus. In light of a broken competition, the onus would be on the rule makers and the referees to intervene. As the saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility”. But there was no intervention, the players were left compromised and yet public pressure was misplaced on them, and a ‘death penalty’ was issued in haste. The pressure to disqualify the players had never come from IOC. Most of the pressure was coming from a deepseated resentment from the public, and many had been dissatisfied with the BWF for its inability to minimise or prevent walkovers and withdrawals by the Chinese players during the Olympics qualification period. Yet the fact remains that no evidence was found over the last 12 months for the BWF to charge the Chinese for
misconduct. Simple statistics of alleged misbehavior do not stand as critical or sufficient evidence to prove the accused guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. Then, one’s legal right of innocence until proven guilty remains. In London, however, three was a crowd. It cannot be about China and its assumed ‘unique team philosophy’ when they were not alone in tanking. It goes deeper into the sport’s administrative structure that has been endorsed by the sport’s governing body. In professional tennis, tennis players are independent, self-employed contractors. But in professional badminton, most top players are but regular salaried employees under an employment contract hired by their national teams. The best way to describe badminton is an organized team sport with an individual competition format. It is in principle perhaps most similar to F1 (except badminton teams are organized by default of their nationalities. But it should offer an insight to how like in F1, certain top teams continually dominate the sport and competitions). Though, this will not sit in favour of the IOC evaluation criteria of Olympics sports. Criteria 4.12.23 on the Evaluation Criteria For Sports And Disciplines states that all sports will have to be evaluated on its “global spread of excellence” – measured in the total number of NOCs or countries per continent that have won Olympic medals.
Incidentally, since badminton made its Olympics debut in 1992, medals have been dominated by China (41.8%), South Korea (19.8%) and Indonesia (19.8%). Indonesia and South Korea had their worst performance in London. China proved its strength in depth and swept all 5 titles. Badminton did, however, registered its best medal spread in London with a total of 7 NOCs taking a spot on the 2012 badminton medal tally. (This is crucial as IOC had pointed out the sport’s weakness is in this very area.) Interestingly - the women’s doubles disqualifications had made it possible. The disqualifications saw four pairs from Australia, Canada, Russia and South Africa enter the quarterfinals and a guaranteed medal from this quartet. From a sport’s governance perspective, the expulsion had ‘benefitted’ the sport in more ways than one, allowing a historic 5-Continental representation in the women’s doubles quarterfinals, and especially maximising the medal spread. Still, for that to have come at the expense of eight girls would leave a permanent bitter taste in the mouth. To BWF’s credit, the change to the round-robin format was a decent response to showcase and encourage global excellence in the sport and maximising revenue too. This is particularly meaningful for countries that do not get regular media/TV exposure – most singles players are now guaranteed to play in more than one Olympics match. The Olympics qualification criteria allow a far greater ranking spread in the singles events than in the doubles.
Unlike the singles players, most of the doubles pairs do make regular appearances in the sport’s commercial series (Superseries) with the exception of the handful of pairs that have qualified via the guaranteed Continental Confederation spots instead of by merit of world ranking. Though, the round robin stage does serve to prolong the elusive Olympic experience for the doubles players. Still, it would have been futile even if a redraw for the quarterfinals stage was made in London. As in principle, the odds are better for a pair to finish second place in their group to avoid being in the same half as another pair that has finished in second place in their group as well. Moving forward, reverting to the knock-out system for the doubles events is critical, then introduce a round robin or “ladders” system for the knocked-out pairs to play-off for an Olympic ranking which is still arguably meaningful to players, and serving the purpose of maximising exposure. Alternatively, the round robin format could be kept, but with the top four seeds given a bye to the quarterfinals. The 12 remaining pairs are split into four groups of three with each group’s winner advancing to the quarterfinal. A one-day break can be given between the round robin and quarterfinals for them to rest and recover. But to ‘clean up’ any team-like behavior in the sport, it is vital to relook at the sport’s administrative structure that had inadvertently formalised the behavior, in fact.
Chapter v Fight the good fight
“Who wants to sit through something like that?” said Lord Sebastian Coe, chair of London 2012 organisers LOCOG, in response to badminton’s tanking fiasco. Not condoning the act of tanking, but the London 2012 fiasco left me wondering if the misplaced pressure to criminalise the eight girls in London revealed how society has the tendency to objectify professional athletes as objects of entertainment? BWF’s response to severely criminalise the girls had in fact put IOC in an awkward position to answer to what appeared like double standards in different sports. “People were not deprived of a competition [in cycling even as Britain’s Philip Hindes admitted to crashing to get a restart for his team and secured a gold medal], unlike in the badminton. A race took place and best efforts were made by the British team,” IOC press spokesman Mark Adams was quoted saying to the press. The message here can be ambiguous with hints of endorsing public deception. Had Hindes not ‘confessed’ then the paying public would be unaware of what was deemed similar ‘unsportsmanlike behavior’ to win a medal.
Then what athletes will take home from London 2012 tanking fiascos is still to architect victory at all cost, but to be better at disguising their intent by means that do not infringe upon the paying public’s right to see a good show. After all, tickets at the Olympics were not cheap. And don’t be mistaken - money is not the root of evil here. Money is what made it possible to stage a modern Olympics, and millions of households worldwide to see it. But if it’s an ethical issue or Olympism values we are concerned about then, as early as 1948, Britain’s gold medal winning rowers Bert Bushnell and Dickie Burnell had also publicly admitted to intentionally losing their first heats to avoid meeting the Danes in the semi-final. They met the Danes in the final as planned, and won. This happened in the middle of sea, so no one saw, the public was not ‘deprived’. There is a critical difference for not putting on a good show for the public vis-à-vis an ethical misconduct. The latter is a moral assassination while the former is not living up to a commercial obligation – which can also be argued that is the evolution of the role of a modern Olympian. If it’s show business, then once again, it is down to the governing body to ensure that the rights of the paying audience and the athletes are balanced. Equally, let this not be a character assassination of the sport’s governors either, but a critique of governance in a sport that hinges on competencies of those in power.
An IF stands to lose its role as a moral compass to lead the sport if it cannot differentiate between what is truly an ethical issue vis-à-vis a governance issue. That integrity of a governing body is to look within its leadership, before casting stones on its very own. If you are a professional player, just remember if the rights of eight players can be conveniently compromised even at the Olympics, it can happen to you too. That their fight is as much as it is yours. If you are a badminton fan, just remember for good governance of the sport you love, depends on everyone to keep the governing body accountable and in check. London’s tanking fiasco was not quite an ethical issue as the world perceived than it was a governance issue. That for the sport as a whole, this could be the tearing down of a circus but it is as much a time to rebuild while badminton is still in the programme for Rio 2016. That assuming collective responsibility, and to uphold its governing integrity as an Olympic sport that IOC should demand, means BWF needs to recognise and concede that the case on the eight girls was mishandled in London. Even as it is not possible to reinstate them back into the competition but at the very least, and at the heart of this, the unnecessary shame of the eight girls can be lifted and their dignity - whatever left from the misgovernance can begin to heal.
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Published on Oct 5, 2012
The little book of the London 2012 Badminton "circus" - the greatest scandal or a case of social injustice? Read over coffee, you tell us.