Could Do Better

“I love the Olympics, because they enable people from all over the world to come together and – regardless of their political or cultural differences – accuse each other of cheating.”

Dave Barry

How true. Already in these Olympics – and it’s only day six, remember – we’ve had at least two serious accusations of cheating. The first was that Chinese swimmer whose name I forget, who was accused of taking drugs, a charge that she roundly denied.

And then we had that badminton business on Tuesday.

Eight players from China, South Korea and Indonesia (who are to badminton what Jamaicans are to running) were disqualified from the tournament for, essentially, not trying hard enough. None of them wanted to win their games because losing would allow them to play a weaker team in the finals, thus giving them an easier route to gold. So, as far as I can tell, in one game the players took turns serving into the net, which is frankly unbelievable given that even I can hit the shuttle eight out of ten times over the net, and in another game the teams simply kept hitting the shuttle off court. Again, for the same reason, unbelievable.

Now, I think there are two sides to the debate. Of course, such playing is against the Olympic spirit and disgraceful and just awful, as previous Olympic badminton champion Gail Emms keeps popping up on BBC1 to tell us. And this is what Yu Yang, one of the disqualified Chinese players, has to say about it:

“This is my last competition. Goodbye Badminton World Federation (BWF), goodbye my beloved badminton. We … only chose to use the rules to abandon the match. This was only so as to be able to compete better in the second round of the knockout (stage). This is the first time the Olympics has changed the (event’s format). Don’t they understand the harm this has caused the athletes?

You have heartlessly shattered our dreams. It’s that simple, not complicated at all. But this is unforgiveable.”

Surely this is a little melodramatic? There are hundreds of badminton players, good ones, who never make it to the Olympics or get knocked out of the early stages. Their dreams are shattered, but they keep going to the next Olympics. And there are plenty of athletes who get disqualified for as little as a false start – just look at Usain Bolt. But he is still running this year. He hasn’t left the sport.

And even if your dreams have been shattered – what about the dreams of all those spectators who crammed into Wembley Arena to watch what they thought would be good badminton? They spent money, good money, to come to the Olympics, to watch what they thought would be the event of a lifetime, and instead they got top-level players playing like six-year-olds. I mean, they could have lost with a little more subtlety. It can’t be that hard, surely, occasionally to drop an easy shot rather than hitting the shuttle obviously in the wrong direction.

On the other hand, however – doesn’t it seem a bit sinister, a bit Big Brother-esque, to disqualify someone for not trying hard enough? Yes, this case is a shameful one, and an obvious one for sanctions. But I think it sets a dangerous precedent. How long before an extreme government somewhere begins prosecuting its athletes for having a bad day? “You didn’t try hard enough.” How long before a host country disqualifies other countries’ athletes for not achieving their personal best? “Well, you won gold last Olympics. This time you only won silver. Obviously you weren’t trying hard enough. Disqualified. Oh look, that means our athlete gets silver instead.”

I think the point of this post is to say that, well, cheating is bad for the sport. It disappoints spectators, and it corrupts sportspeople. By all means, stamp out cheaters – but don’t let it go too far.

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