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Right to lose to win

They didn't cheat. So why have eight badminton players been disqualified for making tactical decisions that would help them win an Olympic medal? Indrajit Hazra writes.

columns Updated: Aug 02, 2012 23:47 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times
Olympics,hindustan times,news

Let me get this straight. The Olympics motto is 'Faster, Higher, Stronger' and not 'Faster, Higher, Stronger, But Without Any Clever Strategies Please'. So why have eight badminton players been disqualified for making tactical decisions that would help them win an Olympic medal?

Four South Koreans, two Chinese and two Indonesians have been found guilty of trying to lose their matches so as to encounter an easier opponent in the next round of the competition. In a women's badminton doubles match played between a Chinese and a South Korean team on Tuesday, both sides tried to lose. Why? Because the short-term 'loss' would have resulted in the gain of meeting a less heralded Danish team in the next knock-out stage.

That this was not a plan hatched in the crooked mind of one unsporting strategist was made clear by the fact that in a later match, a South Korean and an Indonesian team were also carrying out the same legitimate tactics. One of the Chinese players was candid enough to say after the match that "we've already qualified and we wanted to have more energy for the knockout rounds".

While the Indonesians wanted to avoid a tougher opponent in the next round, the Chinese team was as keen to avoid their compatriots before the final as the two South Korean teams were not facing each other. After all, which country doesn't want to win both the gold and silver medals? If it was just about jolly old sports winning laurels and not about nations collecting medals, then there wouldn't have been any country-wise Olympic medal tally, would there?

So what awfulness were these eight players up to that made them get the heave-ho from the Olympics? Was there a badminton equivalent of Maradona's 1986 'Hand of God' goal? Did the players tamper with the shuttlecock in a manner reminiscent of Shoaib Akhtar tampering with the ball? Or were the players all juiced up on anabolic steroids tailor-made to deliver unending forehand smashes?

The fact is that no one cheated. In the first China-South Korea match, the two pairs were seen regularly serving into the net or hitting the shuttlecocks wide on purpose. The match referee came out to warn the players at one point after the crowds had started booing. But this was a philistine crowd unable to gauge the beauty of the strategic battle being waged under their noses. Strategy is a source of aesthetic pleasure, and this crowd predictably wanted both sides to play to win. Little did they know or appreciate that it's as hard to lose when both sides are trying to lose as it is to win when both sides are trying to win.

Perhaps the sporting arena that would have understood the eight players' plan to try and lose the battle so that they could win the war is chess. Pieces on a chessboard are regularly sacrificed for a logical end result of victory. Losing to win, for those who can't fathom the concept, can look startlingly like cheating.

As it did for the Indian badminton contingent that accused the Japanese doubles pair in their Group B of throwing a match against the Chinese Taipei team to avoid meeting a Chinese pair in the next round. "Taipei had to and wanted to win, but Japan wanted to lose to be second in the group to avoid China," said Indian coach Pullela Gopichand adding, "Just because it's subtle and the crowd didn't make a noise, the TV didn't make a noise, doesn't mean it didn't happen. In this match only one team wanted to lose."

And the Japanese did manage to lose their last match, thereby pipping the Indians on an aggregate to the second spot in the league table and moving on to the next round. That they managed to do this much more 'subtly' than the Chinese, Indonesians and South Koreans from the other groups is evidence of their ability to put up a more 'aesthetic' display of strategic depth.

So it's a pity that Olympian levels of self-righteousness has made the Badminton World Federation charge eight tactically-minded sportswomen of "not using one's best efforts to win a match" (a charge that surely can be levelled as a national excuse against the Indian hockey team's performance) and for "conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport" (what, young badminton enthusiasts across the world will all now play to lose matches?).

Short-term piety has been favoured over long-term glory. Next, they'll be giving a gold medal to the first one to set off from the starting line instead of the athlete who uses his wits to pace himself and be the first to breast the finishing tape.

First Published: Aug 02, 2012 23:45 IST