LONDON — Four Olympic badminton teams were disqualified Wednesday for trying to lose early matches so they would face less skilled players in the later knockout rounds, an episode that drew outrage from fans and was widely seen as an insult to the Olympic spirit.
In a highly unusual move, the Badminton World Federation cited the eight players from the four teams — two from South Korea, one from China, and one from Indonesia — for poor sportsmanship in the women’s doubles tournament. Officials said their intentionally amateurish play violated the Player’s Code of Conduct.
“The players were charged . . . with not using one’s best effort to win a match and conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport,” said Thomas Lund, chief operating officer of the Badminton World Federation. An appeal by South Korea was quickly denied, while Indonesia withdrew its earlier protest of the ruling
Intentionally losing preliminary contests to manipulate later matchups is virtually unheard of in major competitions. Certainly, it has never been as blatantly and poorly done as it was in badminton this week. (The closest other athletes have come is perhaps easing up in preliminary heats to conserve energy, or, in the case of heavy favorites such as the US men’s basketball team, easing up at the end of blowout victories.)
Spectators booed lustily as it became clear Tuesday that the four badminton teams were throwing matches. Officials admonished players for conceding points with serves hit into the net and shots well wide. One tournament referee stepped on the court and threatened the Indonesian and Korean players with a black card during their Tuesday night match.
“It was depressing,” said London Organizing Committee chairman Sebastian Coe, after he was asked to address the scandal in a daily press briefing. “Who wants to sit through something like that?’’
As disgust at Wembley Arena grew, the first major controversy of the London Olympics threatened to overshadow other competitions. Meanwhile, badminton officials scrambled to reorganize the women’s doubles tournament.
The London Olympics marked the first time the Games included group play, a preliminary round where teams did not face immediate elimination upon losing. The preliminary round was intended to give exposure to more players from more countries. Prior to London, a single loss knocked a team out of the competition.
“All four pairs had qualified for the knockout round, so all they were trying to do was get a better draw,” Gail Emms, a British badminton player who won silver in mixed doubles at the 2004 Athens Games, told the BBC. “But it was the way everyone [did it]. It was diabolical. The fact that the girls were serving so obviously into the net. I don’t understand how they could do that as competitors . . . As athletes, as competitors, as part of the Olympic Games, you want to go out there and do your best. I feel it was the right decision [to disqualify them].”
The uncomfortable spotlight on women’s badminton comes as the Badminton World Federation tries to raise the profile and popularity of the sport, especially on the women’s side. Last year, the federation stirred controversy when it planned to require women to wear skirts or dresses in competition. The idea was that such uniforms would generate more attention and draw more sponsors. But amid widespread criticism that the dress code rule was sexist, the federation dropped it. Now, women’s badminton is getting all the attention it can handle, for the wrong reasons.
The Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, condemned the poor sportsmanship of its players in an editorial. It said the behavior “seriously violated the Olympic spirit regarding fair play” and that whoever violates the rules “should be criticized and looked down upon.”
The BWF announced the players’ disqualification from the tournament, and the IOC was weighing whether it should expel them from the Games.
In trying to lose their early matches, the now-disqualified players hoped to avoid potentially more difficult matchups in the quarterfinals and beyond, as well as contests against rivals from their own country. All four doubles teams had already qualified for the quarterfinals.
In a contest that featured conspicuously short rallies, the top-seeded Chinese team of Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli lost to the South Korean pair of Jung Kyung Eun and Kim Ha Na. The result ensured that the No. 1-seeded Chinese would not face the No. 2-seeded Chinese until the finals.
Late Wednesday night, Yu said she was quitting the sport, and Chinese officials told their disgraced players to make a public apology, according to multiple reports.
Intentionally poor play also marked the match between No. 3-seeded South Koreans Kim Min Jung and Ha Jung Eun and Indonesians Meiliana Jauhari and Greysia Polii. The Koreans won that match, too, which may explain why the country appealed.
But given the uproar over the lack of competition, they had a tough case to make.
The Twitter account of top-ranked British badminton player Chris Adcock became a small forum for complaints. Adcock tweeted, “If it’s true and people are trying to lose, then it’s disqualification for me.”
Professional Danish badminton player Hans-Kristian Vittinghus tweeted, “Hard to see the sport I love like this! What a disgrace! I’m not going to blame the BWF for the group format — players should always try to win!!!”
“There is fantastic badminton going on in Wembley Arena,” Emms told the BBC. “Players not involved in this situation are just trying to concentrate, yet the whole talk is about what happened [Tuesday] night . . . It’s embarrassing. It’s a minority sport and this is our one chance to get on TV and showcase our great sport at the Olympic Games.”
The tournament continued Wednesday evening with doubles teams from Russia, Canada, Australia, and South Africa replacing the disqualified teams in the quarterfinals.