It wasn’t a pretty day for sport – particularly badminton – yesterday.
It was the final group A match of the women’s doubles, and the world No.1 Chinese were taking on world No.3 Korea. Both were trying to lose!
This curious incident was necessitated by an upset earlier on Tuesday morning, when Denmark’s world No.6 pair Camilla Pedersen and Kamilla Rytter-Juhl upset all predictions by overwhelming the World No.2 Chinese pair of Qing Tian and Zhao Yunlei. To anybody who has followed badminton, this was a massive result. China’s women’s doubles pairs are considered unbeatable, having had an iron grip on the event ever since China became part of the international circuit in the early 1980s. In 17 World Championship events since 1983, China’s women’s doubles teams have won 16! (But let’s remember that this was just a group match; the Chinese are yet capable of winning gold.)
The loss of the world No.2 pair complicated things for the Chinese. Badminton is experimenting with a new group format. Sixteen doubles teams are divided into four groups, and the top two teams of each group make it to the quarterfinals. The top-ranked pair of one group will play the second-placed pair of another group. This meant that the world No.2 Chinese would take on the world No.1 Chinese in the quarterfinals – an awful proposition, for they would have expected to meet in the final, with a guaranteed gold and silver!
But the Koreans weren’t ignorant children. They needed to come second in the group to avoid a quarterfinal meeting with the Chinese world number ones! The match was thus reduced to a farce. Both teams served wide or into the net, while their smashes, which usually home in on the lines like guided missiles, lacked sting and direction. Meanwhile, to complicate things further, an Indonesian-Korean match was also being played in the same poor spirit, for each team wanted to ‘decide’ its most favourable quarterfinal opponent. The crowd, wise to these antics, booed. People commented darkly on what a bad day it was for badminton. The tournament referee was seen walking up to the players and issuing an apparent warning.
This isn’t the first time such a thing has happened in badminton. The Chinese are generally accused of ‘pre-deciding’ matches featuring all-China contests, but yesterday’s matches showed that, where national interest is concerned, all teams behave in the same manner. The Indonesians were accused of much the same thing when they dominated badminton in the 1970s.
And Indians aren’t blameless either. As far back as 1947, two Indians – Prakash Nath and Devinder Mohan – were drawn to meet in the quarterfinals of the All England, then the world’s premier badminton event. Having decided that it made no sense to tire each other out, they decided to toss a coin. Prakash Nath won the toss, beat his semifinal opponent, and reached the final, which he would eventually lose to a Swede.
The questions to ask, therefore, are these: were we outraged because the teams were playing to lose, or because it was so apparent? Would it have been more ‘ethical’ if the two teams pretended to be competing for a win? Sport is a microcosm of life, and we must wonder how we would behave in similar, real-life instances where we have to choose national interest over ethics.