The crowd booed and jeered the badminton athletes. The spectators could see something wasn’t right. It was clear that some of the world’s best players were trying to lose at the Olympics.
On Wednesday, officials agreed with what fans saw. Eight women – a doubles teams from China, two from South Korea and one from Indonesia – were thrown out of the London Games for violating badminton’s code of conduct, “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and play that undermined the sport.
In the long history of cheating at the Olympics, and in sports, the badminton scandal was an unusual twist. The ejected teams had, on Tuesday night in London, tried to purposefully lose matches at the end of a preliminary round to better position themselves in the playoffs for a medal. It was obvious, an ugly spectacle.
The badminton affair joins an ignominious gallery of cheating, match fixing and drug use at the highest levels of sport, a dark side of athletic competition that always and especially hangs like a spectre over major gatherings such as the Olympics. But whether it is the New Orleans Saints deliberately trying to injure opponents in football, or a corrupt figure skating judge, cheating is a dark thread that runs deep within sports at their most extreme.
For Jack Taunton, chief medical officer of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, he remains an “Olympics junkie” even as he has a skeptical eye on amazing results.
“Sports has been my life,” Taunton said on Wednesday. “It certainly is frustrating. Before when I would see a tremendous performance, my first thought was, ‘Isn’t that excellent?’ Now, it’s terrible but I’m thinking, ‘What are they on?’”
It is here where an athlete such as 16-year-old Ye Shiwen, the Chinese winner of two golds in the pool in London, falls. Pervasive questions surround her wins, which a top U.S. official called “disturbing” and “unbelievable.”
Canadian Ben Johnson, busted for steroids after winning gold in the 100-metre dash in 1988, is a demarcation point for many in the history of cheats at the Olympics, though the history goes back decades. Testing for drugs didn’t start until 1968 and scientists such as Taunton are in a constant battle against doping, as gains in detection technology tries to keep pace with athletes willing to skirt ethical boundaries.
The amount of tests, in and out of competition, has spiralled higher to clamp down on cheats. There were 800 tests administered at the Winter Games in Salt Lake City in 2002, a figure that tripled to 2,400 for Vancouver, Taunton said.
At London, the International Olympic Committee plans about 5,000 tests (3,800 urine and 1,200 blood). The top five finishers in every event, plus two other randomly picked athletes, undergo tests.
But even as badminton becomes an unlikely epicentre of scandal, it is not clear that there are more athletes trying to quietly break the rules in the pursuit of glory than in years past. And there are many shades of grey. As the badminton athletes were banished from the Games, the coach of the women’s soccer team from Japan admitted he instructed his players to play for a tie against weaker South Africa, instead of a win, to avoid travel for the quarter-finals this week. No sanctions were levied.
“It would be difficult to determine whether it [cheating] is more prevalent than before,” said Mark Tarnopolsky, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at McMaster University. “It might seem so – but we’re better at catching them. I think there’s as many cheats as always.”
The spotlight on the Games also propels the impression of a metastasizing problem, rather than one of rule breaking that’s on par with other realms, less dissected by the public eye.
“It’s the same as other parts of society: Politicians are not honest; you drive a few miles an hour over the speed limit; you’re not perfectly honest in filling out your tax form,” said Bernard Dickens, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s faculty of law and joint centre for bioethics.
“We shouldn’t expert sports people to behave differently from society in general, where rules are not taken seriously. Sports is the last place we expect them to be sportsmen, with honest sportsmanship.”
To Paul Melia, president of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, cheating doesn’t emerge at the top tier of competition. It begins with children, and how they are taught, and what balance of winning, fair play, and the like, is instilled.
“From a very young age, a lot of emphasis is placed on winning,” Melia said.
He believes the real solution to the prevention of doping and other forms of cheating is how children are taught to compete. “But it’s a long-term process,” Melia said, “so people don’t really want to hear it.”