Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Ethical Wrong of Intentionally Losing: Olympic Badminton Scandal


I could imagine a lot of potential scandals in the 2012 Olympics. But if someone had told me it would involve a) badminton and b) intentionally losing a game, I would not have believed it. Now I find out in this red-hot sport in Asia that the Chinese tactic of intentionally losing to face weaker opponents or set up an all Chinese final might be the norm.It violates the moral foundation of being an athlete.

Four female teams representing South Korea, China and Indonesia with members who are the best in the world have been kicked out of the Olympics. The eight players were rightly exiled from the Olympics for “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and for “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.” They join the six other athletes kicked out for drug violations this game. This game throwing was not infected by the gambling that motivated the European soccer scandals. Intead, the women intentionally tried to lose probably ordered by coaches or government sports federations to create easier seeding for their teams. In an absurdist comedy two teams kept trying to lose to each other.

The players and some commentators tried to escape responsibility and blamed the new rules that permitted round robin play and not knock out play. At least eight other Olympic sports have similar formats, and no one talks about similar incentives. Any advantages gained by such powerful teams are minuscule. Before looking at the disgrace involved, I want to address one other claim that such cheating may be justified.

Life presents opportunities for “strategic losing.” For instance a lawyer might take on a case that he or she knows they will lose. The loss will help set a precedent or begin a public argument or mobilize individuals around an issue. Politicians pursue an issue they know they will lose to frame an agenda or begin a long-term discussion. These situations do not involve intentionally losing by not giving one’s best effort or skill. The loss occurs legitimately in real competition, but serves a broader long term purpose.

Many coaches schedule tougher teams who they know will probably beat their team but want their team to experience a high level of competition and see what excellences looks like. Teams might play younger players who they know will lose but get stronger over time, and the competition helps them grow. 

One variant seems closer to what the Chinese, South Korean and Indonesian teams attempted—to throw a match intentionally playing below your skill level  to gain a competitive advantage in seeding. It reminds me of the perennial arguments the NFL, MLB and NBA fans have over whether teams should tank the rest of their games to get the number one draft spot or be in the lottery picks.

Every year the fans argue but as near as I can make out, teams almost never succumb to this. Professional pride and reputation means coaches and players do not want to be tagged in this way. Players play for their own reputation and their statistics impact their own compensation.  Forcing players to try to lose exacts an immense psychological and moral cost upon the athletes who are fierce competitors, prideful individuals and driven by every aspects of their character to push as hard as they can to win each play and each game.

Throwing a game is wrong but the Olympics amplifies this. Olympic  teams take an oath to compete to the best of their ability and abide by sportsmanship. This is the Olympics where the best athletes from the world gather to prove their worth and worthiness once every four years. 

Athletic competition depends upon competition and uncertainty. The reality of the competition gives sports its meaning and dynamic. Competition provides the field upon which individuals prove themselves and develop. To take competition out of sport reduces it to nothing more than gambling fixed games or modern wrestling with ordained scripts. Throwing a game , intentionally losing, violates the core integrity of athletic competition.

The moral algorithm of integrity in sports might look something like this:

INTEGRITY = SKILL + EFFORT + JUDGMENT

With this in mind, here are the ethical failures involved in intentionally losing:

1)            The player must rein in or distort their skill. An athlete must hit the ball out when it could easily go in or hit a bad serve when they easily could get the serve in. They make deliberate mistakes of omission and commission.
2)            The athlete lets down their effort and gives less then what is required. A true athlete exists totally present to the situation and commits his or her mind, perception and body to what is called for. Holding back effort might be as simple as a player does not extend far enough to return a serve or react as quickly as they would to return a slam. Either way, the player pulls back from what they are capable of and is required in effort.
3)            A player must subvert their judgment to make bad decisions. This is actually harder than it seems because it assumes the player knows what to do, and all their training, pattern recognition and primed behavior push them in that direction. The player must instead make a bad decision, knowing what a good one is.

The moral wrongs of intentionally losing and throwing a game add up quickly.

1)            A player betrays him or herself and violates their relation to their identity as an athlete. The athlete chooses to not play up to their highest skill during a competition. The athlete chooses to sacrifice her or his exquisite judgment and decide badly, knowing it is a bad decision--this is not a mistake, it is moral sabotage.
2)            Not only do they betray their skill but sacrifice the effort they have inculcated in him or herself to achieve elite status. Even if skilled and judging well, they mar their actions with less effort bringing down their level of expected excellence.
3)            The athlete violates their promises to their teammates to give all their energy and focus to achieve a common goal.
4)            Intentionally losing also violates an athlete’s relation to the integrity of the game to which they have devoted their lives. The athlete degrades the very practice through which they gain that gives them identity and worth.
5)           Intentionally losing disregards faith with the spectators and fans who invest money, time and emotional loyalty in following the team. These persons commit to the team and follow its members and stake emotional and intellectual energy on them. The disgusted booing and anger of the Olympic fans who came expecting excellence and competition and got farce reflect this.

I cannot believe the athletes who did this believed in their actions. Their entire body and being must have screamed out against this betrayal of the Olympic ideals and their years of training. Yet in the end, they did and deserved their fate.

After their ethical failure and moral insult to the sport, such athletes are no longer the same persons they were before they intentionally lose. They cheat their personhood.

2 comments:

  1. I agree that this was an unexpected twist at the Olympics this year. While I agree that losing on purpose is morally wrong and it was the right thing to do to kick the team out of the competition, I still feel like the structure of the tournament needs to change to discourage losing on purpose. The system seems broken if you are going to reward losing.

    It kind of reminds me of a situation at the last Men's World Cup. In the Uruguay/Ghana match, Ghana was about to score the game winning goal when a Uruguay player blocked the ball with this hand right at the goal line. It was a red card for the player, but Ghana had to shoot a penalty kick and missed it. Ghana ended up losing the game, even though they should have won. The hand ball was clearly cheating, and morally reprehensible of the player from Uruguay, but the rules allowed that to happen. Basketball has solved this by saying if you goal tend, the basket counts. Soccer could do the same thing to avoid this kind of behavior completely, and I think Olympic tournaments could structure themselves in a way that avoid it as well.

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  2. I agree that losing on purpose is morally wrong. However, this is just a tip of the iceberg. There is no reason to accuse players if we know better about what is behind their behaviors. The ultimate goal for players, or for whatever nation attends Olympic, is not just for fun, they come, they see, and they want to conquer. If Olympic is all for peace and celebration of human mighty, why there are gold, silver, bronze medals? Why we just show to the whole world how fast a man can run, and how heavy a man can lift, and then have a party? The competitive system of this warlike Olympic determines there will be a winner, as well as loser.

    What is the moral of Chinese players? They win for their country. It is the moral. I bet no players will like losing, but when it comes to how big chance you can win in the end of this tournament, you have to count the odds in, as well as strategic plan, just like NBA games or European Soccer. Actually, they cannot decide they win or lose, the decision is made by the team leaders in badminton group, because they want to make sure the gold medal is in their pocket. At this situation, the interest of nation is over the moral of a single person. There is no right or wrong. They are great players who play for their country and want to maximize their benefits to the country. If we stand at their situation, as a player, they are morally wrong; but as a Chinese, they are morally right. All in all, it is an issue way beyond the moral side. And the players are the last people to accuse, way after the tournament rules, different sporting systems.

    I think the biggest misunderstanding between western philosophy and eastern or Chinese philosophy is when a player stands on the ground, what s/he is thinking matters. It can be : "I want to win and be a hero." or It can be: "I cannot let my county down."

    My point exactly.

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