The expulsion of eight badminton players from the London Olympics for deliberately attempting to lose their matches sends the right message while raising an interesting question about what it means to compete. The women’s doubles teams – one from China, one from Indonesia and two from South Korea – were trying to manipulate the outcome of the round-robin stage of the tournament; by losing their games, they would have guaranteed themselves a weaker opponent in the first round of the knockout stage. They refused to exert themselves and deliberately missed easy shots, in spite of officials’ repeated warnings to play to the best of their abilities.
The question this raises is whether athletes should be punished for strategically losing a battle in order to win the war. The point of high-level competition is, after all, to win it all, and this is no less true in the Olympics than it is in professional sports. In baseball, pitchers routinely walk batters on purpose; in many pro sports, teams that are ensured a spot in the playoffs won’t field their best players for the final game of the regular season because they want to rest them for the more important games ahead. In chess, the deliberate sacrifice of a pawn is accepted strategy.
So what is the badminton players’ crime? Simple: In the examples mentioned above, nobody deliberately sets out to lose a game by performing badly. To compete under the terms of good sportsmanship means to give your all to win the match at hand, even if – maybe especially if – it means your next opponent will be tougher. Spectators demand it, the rules require it, and sporting ethics make it non-optional. The eight badminton players tried to rig the outcome of their matches; the fact they are going home in disgrace says everything we need to know about what it means to compete with honour.