Jul 31, 2012; London, United Kingdom; Spain forward Rudy Fernandez (5) looks on from the bench after an injury in the men's preliminary game against Australia during the London 2012 Olympic Games at Basketball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
When the format of the competition gives the participants an incentive to lose, it shouldn't surprise anyone that matches get thrown. The scenario that played out in badminton could very well happen during the last day of pool play in the Olympic men's basketball tournament as well.
I don't want to disillusion anyone out there, but tanking happens. Coaches and players wouldn't choose to use that word nor would they admit to throwing matches -- they might instead call it strategy or tactics or even in a moment of candor gamesmanship -- but the simple fact of the matter is that in many athletic competitions there are battles and then there is the war. Any general will gladly lose an individual battle to gain an advantage in the broader war, because he knows that the war is the thing that truly matters.
So the fact that four women's doubles badminton teams tried to lose by intentionally playing poorly on Monday and Tuesday in their final pool play matches shouldn't really come as too big a surprise to anyone. As it happens, the organizers were experimenting with a qualifying round for the first time in Olympic badminton, and the Law of Unintended Consequences reared its ugly head as it so often does. With both teams already guaranteed spots in the quarterfinals before their matches began, the teams weren't really playing for anything. The fact that quarterfinal seeding actually provided an incentive to lose in order to avoid the world's No. 1 ranked duo sealed the deal. These were battles better lost from a strategic standpoint.
And this is nothing new. Since 1986 FIFA has scheduled the final matches of pool play for the World Cup to occur simultaneously in order to minimize any strategy-inspired shenanigans. This was specifically in response to the "Shame of Gijon" match between West Germany and Austria in the 1982 Cup, in which a 1-0 victory for West Germany would ensure that both Teutonic countries would move on to the knockout stage at the expense of Algeria. In an outcome that fooled exactly no one, the German's scored in the 10th minute, followed by 80 minutes of "kick the ball around" and both countries advanced.
What is new is that the World Badminton Federation has done something about it, taking the unprecedented step of disqualifying all eight of the involved players. I thought David Stern was heavy handed, but it's not like Stern fined Mark Jackson and the Warriors for starting five rookies last season. Thomas Lund of the WBF now holds the unofficial title of "Most Bad Ass Commissioner in Sport."
The WBF justified the disqualifications in an official statement as follows: "The pairs have been charged ... with '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.''
Good for the WBF for taking a hard line -- but hold on a minute. This seems like the new, bigger can, with more worms than ever; the improved slippery slope, with 50 percent more grease.
Most federations probably have a bylaw requiring their athletes to "use their best efforts to win" or some such -- but what is the ultimate goal? Is the goal to win the match (the battle), or to win the gold medal (the war)? There's no doubt that these players were not using their best efforts to win their match this week, but who can say that it was not their best effort to win the gold?
The badminton competition, with a qualifying round of pool play and a dominant No. 1 competitor that every other competitor would prefer to avoid, was tailor made for this type of chicanery. I sure hope there aren't any other Olympic sports where that might be the case!
As it happens, the Olympic men's basketball tournament is another perfect storm and has a potential nightmare scenario looming for the final day of pool play. If Russia goes undefeated in Group B (a distinct possibility given the way it has looked so far) then in all likelihood the game between Spain and Brazil Monday night will determine the second and third seeds in Group B, with the winner finishing second (B2) and the loser finishing third (B3). The format of the knockout stage places B2 on the same side of the bracket as the first place team in Group A (A1), aka Team USA, while B3 goes into the other side of the bracket.
So put yourself in Spain's hightops Monday night if this scenario plays out. A win against Brazil likely gets you a quarterfinal meeting with either France or Argentina (neither is really distinguishable from the other, and which one is looming might not even be determined by that point) and a semifinal meeting with Team USA. A loss on the other hand means a quarterfinal meeting with either France or Argentina and a semifinal against some team that does NOT have LeBron James. What would you do? What should you do? Would you really use your "best efforts to win" that game?
Of course it's much easier to throw games in a team sport, and easier still to provide a veneer of plausible deniability. You can always play your second unit and justify it on the basis of additional rest for the starters. You can even invent injuries if rest doesn't seem like a good enough reason to some big brother entity that might be watching events unfold. You don't have to tell the players on the court to actually play badly as the badminton players did (though you can always tell Mark Madsen to shoot a bunch of three-pointers if you really want to lose).
This happens constantly in the NBA of course, and not just among lottery teams. When Gregg Popovich sits Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker during the regular season for no reason other than to give them extra rest he's praised as a bold genius, where Thomas Lund would have an open and shut case for "not using one's best efforts to win."
The problem, of course, occurs when you give teams an incentive to lose. We won't get into the moral hazard of the NBA Draft in this discussion (suffice it to say that NBA teams that have been eliminated from playoff contention have plenty of other incentives beyond lottery odds to play less than their best, including injury avoidance and developing young talent) but it goes without saying that some teams lose interest in winning late in the season.
Usually this is relatively benign -- when a team with incentive to win meets a team with incentive to lose, invariably both teams get the desired outcome. But when both teams want to lose, when both have a relatively strong incentive to lose, it can get ugly -- which is what happened in badminton and what could happen with Spain and Brazil Monday.
Usually that incentive is a direct result of a poorly designed competition format, and badminton players have been quick to point out that having a qualifying round of pool play for the first time in Olympic badminton was the root of this controversy. Late in the 2005-06 NBA season, another such situation arose. The Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies met in the next-to-last game of the season for both teams, with the Grizzlies leading the Clippers by a single game in the standings. At that point, the Grizzlies had the fourth best record in the Western Conference and the Clippers had the fifth best record, so one would think that winning that game would have been of the utmost urgency. Unfortunately, the NBA was in the final year of an ill-fated playoff seeding format in which the three Division winners received the first three playoff seeds, regardless of record. The Denver Nuggets had already clinched the Northwest Division title, despite having a worse record than either the Clippers or the Grizzlies. Meanwhile, the Dallas Mavericks had the second best record in the Western Conference, but happened to be in the Southwest Division with the Conference leading San Antonio Spurs, making the Mavericks the fourth seed heading into the post season. The quirks of the playoff seeding system meant that the loser of the Clippers-Grizzlies game would face Denver in the first round while enjoying home court advantage in the series and would also be placed in the weak side of the playoff bracket overall, while the winner would face Dallas in the first round on the strong side of the bracket. James Singleton led the Clippers in scoring that night while Jake Tsakalidis led the Grizzlies, but the Clippers sucked it up and sucked more to lose the game and fall to sixth. When they beat the Nuggets in the playoffs for their first ever playoff series victory while the Grizzlies were being swept by the Mavs, I don't think they felt too much guilt about the strategic decision to lose that game.
After the 2006 playoffs, as a direct response to the Clippers-Grizzlies situation,the NBA fixed their playoff seeding snafu and there hasn't been quite so blatant a tank-fest in the NBA since.
The potential for this problem is even more pronounced in the Olympics. In the United States, people don't generally give a hoot about anything but first place. Most Americans agree with Ricky Bobby: "If you ain't first, you're last." But in the Olympics, particularly when there's a dominant force in the field, those silver and bronze medals suddenly look extra shiny. Kelci Bryant and Abigail Johnston were elated to come in second, since they knew they never had a chance against the Chinese divers to begin with. Avoiding Team USA until the gold medal match is in all likelihood the only way to finish better than third in the Olympic basketball tournament. It only makes sense to avoid the 800-pound gorilla if you know where he's lurking.
Basketball coaches are not dumb. They are generals fighting the broader war. It is inherent on the organizers of sporting events to design a competition that provides the proper incentives to win not just the war but also the battles along the way. The NBA regular season is too long, so Popovich intentionally loses some battles as part of his war effort and no one bats an eye. Ruben Magnano and Sergio Scariolo are certainly going to be aware of any advantages that losing may impart their teams, depending on the way things play out in Group B.
The video of those disputed badminton matches is not pretty. Competition rarely will be when the "competitors" have more incentive to lose than to win. Which is to say, if Russia goes undefeated in Group B, don't bother watching Spain-Brazil Monday, because it won't be pretty either.