Five-ring Circus

Shuttlecock and Bull

Eight badminton players have been disqualified from the Olympics for tanking. Why were they trying to lose, and why is the sport so dirty?

An official threatens Greysia Polii and Meiliana Jauhari of Indonesia and Jung Eun Ha and Min Jung Kim of South Korea with a “black card” disqualification in their women’s doubles match. Both teams were ultimately disqualified.

Photograph by Michael Regan/Getty Images.

Eight female badminton players from China, South Korea, and Indonesia have been disqualified from the London Olympics over charges that they tanked a pair of doubles matches. Why were they trying to lose on purpose in the first place?

It’s basically all Denmark’s fault—but we’ll get to that in a second. First, a word on the badminton tournament structure. Like many Olympic sports, badminton has a preliminary round that’s used to determine seeding and a knockout round that decides who wins gold, silver, or bronze. As the AP explains, “The round-robin format can allow results to be manipulated to earn an easier matchup in the knockout round.”

Given that just 16 teams entered the women’s doubles tournament and half qualify for the knockout stage, it was possible for teams to clinch a spot in the medal round with one preliminary game remaining. That’s exactly what one Chinese, two South Korean, and one Indonesian team did. And in a stroke of rotten luck for the tournament organizers, two matches on the final day of qualifying featured contests between those already-qualified teams.

When a match is useful for positioning and nothing else, the door is open for nefariousness. The torrent of skullduggery began after one of China’s two women’s doubles teams—Zhao Yunlei and Tian Qing—lost to Denmark’s Christinna Pedersen and Kamilla Rytter Juhl by the score of 22-20, 21-12. That shocking result meant the two Chinese teams—the tournament favorites—would meet in the semifinals of the knockout round rather than the gold-medal game, depriving China of the chance to win both gold and silver. China’s only hope of putting two teams in the finals, then was for the country’s other team of Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang to lose, thus pushing themselves to the opposite side of the bracket. Once their South Korean opponents saw what the Chinese were up to, they decided it was also in their best interest to lose—that a defeat would give them better medal-round matchups as well.

The resulting loser-takes-all match proved that top-level badminton players need to learn how to lose intentionally without looking like they’re trying to lose intentionally. As the crowd groaned and booed, the Chinese and South Korean players repeatedly served the birdie into or under the net, looking less competent than a bunch of Americans playing with a plastic Target badminton set at a backyard barbecue. China’s Wang and Yu ultimately succeeded in losing, but their defeat was a Pyrrhic victory (or, I guess, a Pyrrhic defeat)—if they hadn’t tanked so ostentatiously, they’d probably still be in the tournament today.

That pathetic display from the Chinese and South Korean pairs set the stage for another round of tanking. In the South Korea-Indonesia match an hour later, both teams again had good reason to do their worst. If the South Koreans won, they’d have to face their countrymen in the quarterfinals; if the Indonesians were victorious, they’d have to play the powerful Chinese team that had just succeeded in losing.

All that lack of effort came to nothing when all four of the not-so-lovable losers were expelled by the Badminton World Federation for “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.” With those four teams now eliminated, the big winners are the Chinese team of Zhao and Tian, whose loss to Denmark kicked off the disgraceful cascade that ended up clearing the draw of all the top contenders. They now seem likely to cruise to the gold medal.

Some American sportswriters have seemed surprised that wimpy old badminton—“an obscure, easily mocked sport,” as Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg put it—finds itself caught up in a major scandal. But the sport has a long history of match-fixing. In 2008, for instance, the South Korean national team admitted to tanking against England and Malaysia in the first round of the Thomas Cup to increase its chances of being matched with a weaker team in the quarterfinals—Denmark. “We formulated a strategy before we arrived … and that means not finishing top of the group,” said South Korean coach Kim Jung Soo at the time. (Later that year, Kim was suspended over allegations that he embezzled money from a badminton organization.)

Badminton-centric blogs and online message boards are riddled with cheating allegations, some more substantiated than others. Chinese players are often at the center of these claims. As Tarek Hafi put it in Badzine (“The World’s No. 1 Badminton Webzine”), “crowds and badminton fans around the world have become accustomed to some trepidation before any match between two Chinese sides.” At the world championships in 2003, Chinese doubles players Yang Wei and Zhang Jiewen were accused of tanking a match so their opponent—another Chinese doubles team—would have a better chance of advancing. In the women’s semifinals at the 2004 Summer Olympics, China’s Zhou Mi was allegedly instructed by her coach “not to work too hard” in her match against teammate Zhang Ning. Zhang went on to win gold. The same thing is said to have happened at the 2000 Sydney Games, when Ye Zhaoying was told to lay down against Gong Zhichao. Gong eventually won gold.

Silly, innocent-seeming badminton is no stranger to doping controversies, either. In 1998, Indonesian doubles’ star Sigit Budiarto tested positive for nandrolone. In 2010, Zhou Mi tested positive for the steroid clenbuterol and was suspended after the Badminton World Federation didn’t buy her explanation that it must have come from eating some tainted pork.

The scandals also extend to the officials who oversee the game. In 2008, the controversial Punch Gunalan was fired as vice president of the Badminton World Federation after an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the organization’s president. And in 2011, the badminton world got hot and bothered after the BWF, in an attempt to draw more attention to the sport, attempted to implement a rule that would require female players to wear skirts during major tournaments. Female players revolted and eventually won the right to wear non-skirt attire. At this Olympics, they proved that they didn’t need to wear flattering uniforms to get the world’s attention. All they had to do was play really, really, really badly.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the London Olympics.