Winning is everything?
AUG 4 — I never thought I’d be writing about badminton, but one of the most interesting stories to emerge from the first week of the London Olympics was the match-throwing scandal in the women’s doubles tournament.
Two pairs from South Korea, one from China and one from Indonesia — a total of eight competitors — have been thrown out of the tournament after attempting to deliberately lose their final group matches, when they had already qualified for the next stage, in an attempt to give themselves an easier route to the final.
First off, let’s be clear: it shouldn’t have happened. Thousands of paying spectators in the arena and millions of television viewers all over the planet do not want to see a deliberate non-contest in the Olympic Games.
But whose fault was it? Who should take responsibility? This is where it gets a little trickier.
The authorities have quickly apportioned the blame to the athletes, disqualifying the eight competitors who were involved. I think that’s wrong.
If anything, the people who should be getting fired are the members of the sport’s organising committee who allowed the scenario to arise by creating a bad format for the competition. The players were only doing their jobs. They were simply, to use one of sport’s most common phrases, “being professional” and trying to give themselves the best chance of winning a medal.
The situation gets to the heart of the old debate about whether sport is — or should be — about taking part or about winning, and how far participants should be prepared to go in pursuit of victory. Loosely, you could call it the morality of sport.
And here I think that, although we may not want to, we need to draw a distinction between ordinary people — especially children — who play sport for fun, fitness and friendship, and professional athletes who make a living out of their chosen sport.
For the former, the emphasis should always be on enjoyment, playing within the rules, treating your opponent with respect and other fluffy liberal concepts of “fair play.”
But let’s be honest, when it comes to the pros, it’s all about winning. Taking into account the money, glory and prestige that are at stake — not forgetting mankind’s strong innate competitive instinct (arguably our strongest instinct of all) — serious performers in any sport will do whatever it takes to win.
Yes, they will play within the rules when they have to; but the vast majority will also be prepared to bend those rules or even veer outside them if the potential rewards are big enough and they think they can get away with it.
It’s the same for sports fans. Although we like to see our favourite teams and players perform with style, flair and in a morally admirable manner, above all we want to see them win.
Think about it: given the choice, would you prefer to see your favourite sports star win a triumphant gold medal at the Olympics, or finish towards the rear as a result of an act of selfless sportsmanship? Ninety-nine per cent of us, I believe, would take the medal.
Of course, in a perfect world we would want to have our cake and eat it: we would prefer to win, but also win in the “right” way — performing with respect, integrity and dignity along the way. But ultimately, if given a stark choice between winning and losing, that would all go out of the window and the overwhelming majority of us would choose winning.
That might upset idealists, who would like to believe that winning is secondary to high-minded concepts such as playing in “the right way” and upholding “the spirit of sport.” I think those people are deluded.
Even the official motto of the Olympic Games acknowledges that top-level sport is, primarily, about winning. The motto isn’t a nice and cheery phrase such as: “Give it your best shot,” or “Play fair and clean.” No, it’s the performance-oriented: “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” In other words: try to win.
In any sport it’s easy to find dozens of examples of players bending the rules to create a favourable outcome.
One revealing example that springs immediately to my mind was during the 2005 Ashes cricket series. Australia captain Ricky Ponting was furious when England repeatedly made the very most of loose regulations allowing bowlers to take a short break during play (supposedly injured but in reality just having a shower and a rest), especially when on one such occasion he was run out by England’s substitute fielder Gary Pratt.
Were England cheating? Ponting obviously thought so; England fans would argue their team hadn’t done anything wrong. Really, they were both right: England hadn’t broken any rules but they had certainly bent them by exploiting the loose regulations. What was needed was a tightening of the laws to ensure that “comfort breaks” couldn’t be taken so easily.
At its best, sport should be an even and fair contest, providing equal opportunities for all participants to win by demonstrating their superior ability rather than by trickery.
Therefore, it’s the job of those tasked with governing sport to ensure that opportunities for acting outside the spirit of fair play — the so-called “dark arts” — are minimised. Rules that prevent cheating have to be regularly introduced and strictly implemented. Otherwise, we can only fully expect loopholes in the rules to be mercilessly exploited — because top-level sport is essentially about winning, and winners will do whatever it takes.
Today, eight talented and hard-working badminton players, who have dedicated a large portion of their lives to the goal of winning an Olympics medal (and have received every encouragement along the way), have seen their dreams taken away from them simply because they tried to maximise their chances of doing exactly that.
Although we might not like what they did, they didn’t break any rules. And let’s not kid ourselves: this isn’t just a badminton issue. Virtually every serious athlete in virtually every sport would have done exactly the same.
Don’t blame the players who bend the rules; blame the rules for being loose enough that they can be bent.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.