You’ll be pleased to know there’s a “clause” in the rules of badminton “that players have to make their best efforts.” Mark Adams, a spokesman for the IOC, told us so Wednesday after eight women competitors were bounced from the Olympics for mailing it in in three different languages — Chinese, Korean (South, to be specific) and Indonesian.
Why any sport would need such a clause is a mystery. Making your “best efforts” is the Mother of All Unwritten Rules, the Square One of athletics. Without “best efforts,” there is no competition in any real sense. And without competition, there’s no drama, no crowd engagement, no nothing. It’s just a bunch of buff athletic bodies running around — or not running around, as the case may be.
If there’s any purity in our games, it’s to be found in the puddles of sweat that lie at the feet of its participants. Liquid Trying, you might call it. Large crowds will pay good money to watch this exertion in all its soggy splendor. They might not necessarily glimpse greatness, they figure, but heart — the sine qua non of sport — will always be on display.
That isn’t what happened at the badminton venue in London, though. In the round-robin preliminaries, four doubles teams were found guilty of trying to lose — so they’d have a better draw in the main tournament. One of the teams, world champions Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang of China, presumably pulled the stunt to avoid meeting the No. 2 Chinese pair before the final.
Nationalism before sportsmanship. A slippery slope, that. Especially when it leads to a match in which world-class players deliberately knock serves into the net — while the crowd boos (and wishes the Tower of London still accepted lodgers). Badminton is no threat to overtake football or soccer in the international sports hierarchy, but it’s never more visible than in the Olympics. You’d think it would want to put its best racket forward, show the world that it, too, is worthy of respect, if not painted faces and fantasy leagues.
Allow me to direct your attention to the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. No athletes on the planet embody the Tao of Trying better than they do. Twenty-three times as pros (Serena 13, Venus 10) they’ve stood on opposite sides of the net in singles and engaged in mortal combat, all in the name of sport. After their first dust-up, which Venus won in straight sets in 1998, Big Sister said, “Even though it was Serena, I’m still a competitor. After the match I told her, ‘Serena, I’m sorry I took you out. I didn’t want to, but I had to do it.’”
When they met again a year later in their first final — another Venus victory — their father Richard said, “I think every time Venus plays Serena, she tries to murder Serena. I just waved the red cape [when they were growing up] and let them go at it.”
And it’s not like they couldn’t rig an outcome if they wanted to. So many matches, after all, come down to a handful of Big Points. How can you tell if a double fault is due to fatigue, faulty execution or predisposition? As Patrick McEnroe has said, “Tennis is a very easy game to manipulate. I can throw a match, and you’d never know.”
Unfortunately for the Badminton Eight, their lack of effort was all too apparent. Worse, they tanked on athletics’ biggest stage, which just increased, exponentially, the damage to their sport. We’re used to the occasional failed drug test in the Olympics, the occasional scoring controversy; we’re also aware that competitors often hold back a little in qualifying heats. But the sight of athletes deliberately losing — in a misguided attempt to game the system, however flawed it might be — is fairly foreign to us.
Some will say the set-up of the badminton competition encouraged such nefarious behavior. The thing is, temptations such as this present themselves all the time in sports. Back in 1992, you may recall, the Washington Redskins needed help on the final Sunday to get in the playoffs, and there was much speculation about whether the Minnesota Vikings would oblige them. The Vikings had clinched their division and had nothing to play for, and they certainly didn’t want to face the defending-champion Redskins in the first round — particularly since they had lost to them, at home, two months earlier.
But the Vikes beat Green Bay, anyway … then were beaten the next weekend by Joe Gibbs’ bunch. Coach Denny Green had no regrets, though. For him, it was a matter of pride and credibility.
Somehow, that got lost in the scramble for badminton glory at the Olympics: If they’re keeping score, you play to win. Otherwise, who are you, and why are you there?