LONDON — In the Olympics you go where the story is, which is what brought me to Wembley Arena Saturday afternoon for the badminton women’s doubles gold-medal match.
Yes, badminton. The Great Scandal of London 2012 took place in the world of badminton, where last week eight players from three countries were sent home for failing to give their best efforts in a match; i.e. what you or I would call dumping.
It all had to do with avoidance. A surprise loss early in the competition meant that the natural order of things was disturbed, and by winning a match the victor would be playing an opponent deemed impregnable, specifically the No. 2-ranked Chinese team of Tian Qing and Zhao Yunlei. Farcical matches ensued, embarrassing the Badminton World Federation and the London Olympics themselves.
The question before us on Saturday was simply this: Was it necessary? Were Tian and Zhao that superior, that unbeatable, that the chicanery, however ethically challenged it may have been, was necessary?
They did lose a match to Denmark after they had clinched their spot, which only goes to show that negative strategy in these events is something that will never go away. Conserving one’s energies for more important future encounters is a regular feature of international sport.
Their opponent on Saturday was the fourth-ranked Japanese duo of Mizuki Fujii and Reika Kakiiwa. They had a nice little backing, but it was dwarfed by the Chinese contingent. This was going to be a road game for the Japanese.
As you undoubtedly must know by now, big-time badminton is not the casual backyard game it is in the USA. It is a high-speed game that sometimes borders on racket savagery. There are some wonderful bang-bang confrontations at the net, especially in doubles, which, frankly, delivers more entertainment. It is dominated by Asians for reasons that have more to do, it seems to me, with culture and exposure than with any inherent athletic advantage. I’m sure the USA has loads of athletic females, that if motivated and supported properly, could master this game. But it’s just not on our radar screen, and that’s that.
The festive scene at Wembley Arena was the tale of an Olympics the American TV audience rarely gets to see. This reality is hardly endemic to badminton. The average American sees the Olympics NBC provides for it, and that’s really a shame, because events like this one, rife with pageantry and passion, are the lifeblood of the Games for many nations.
It’s the best two of three sets, and the first was dominated by the Chinese. Tian and Zhao fell behind, 2-0, and then began dictating the pace, moving to a 10-5 lead. It was evident they had more of an overall game plan, setting up their smashes two or three shots in advance. And while many of the Chinese points came as the result of faulty Japanese returns, many landing in the net, the Chinese only surrendered points on winners. They were much the superior team, and they blew through the Japanese in 17 minutes by a score of 21-10.
Now, I know it’s their world, not ours, but one thing I could not understand was why the crowd basically remains silent during play, cheering only when a point has been scored. It’s not tennis. It’s not golf. There would seem to be no reason silence would be the order of the day.
The Chinese quickly moved to an 8-4 lead in the second set when A Funny Thing Happened En Route To The Gold Medal. Their problems began with an easy shot hit into the net followed by a bizarre double-hit on a serve, this from a team actually feared by many other foes.
Fujii and Kakiiwa must have sensed something because they quickly got on a roll, winning eight of the next nine points to energize their followers. They were suddenly scoring points on smashes and you could see their confidence level soaring to a new high. Now both crowds were really into it, and the fun was just beginning.
And I mean that sincerely. It was very easy to get into this, what with the obvious skill of these great players and the accompanying crowd backing. Wembley Arena began to rock. This, I was happy to remind myself in personal Olympics No. 11, is why you love it. You walk in off the street, place yourself into an alien world, and let it entertain you.
Japan went up, 15-12, so we were going to find out what Tian and Zhao were made of. They got the set tied by 16-16, and from that point it was totally tense, the Chinese crowd now making a sound on every shot. What was I saying about no cheering during play? It was as if the crowd had been handed a new script.
I was sitting in what was supposed to be a press section, but at one point in the set a Chinese fellow near me, clad in yellow, yelled something down to the court and Zhao looked up in acknowledgment. OK. Later on, he did it again, and she acknowledged him again. After a while we Olympic veterans learn to accept a different way of doing things, but there can always be a few new surprises.
The Chinese got it to match point at 20-19, but Japan won the point. The Japanese got it to set point at 21-20, but China won that point. China got it to a second match point, and a third, but Japan won both those points. I must tell you, I was invested.
But on match point No. 4, Zhao came through with a backhanded smash and China had won gold. At that moment, no one was thinking about the week’s controversy. Sport had triumphed. For now.
The lingering question is who was truly guilty of what. There never would have been an issue had the Badminton World Federation not rewritten the format to move from strict bracketing to a round-robin system. Many people familiar with international sport rallied to the defense of the banished athletes, pointing out they are all bred to win medals, and if that means executing some funny stuff to achieve the goal, they can’t be faulted. The real villains are the foolish administrators who set up a faulty system that begged for manipulation.
Even so, here’s a layman’s view: Tian and Zhao are pretty good, but was it worth risking your career and reputation to avoid playing them? I’d have to say no. The whole thing was a lose-lose proposition from the get-go.
Anyway, I don’t think there will be a badminton round-robin in Rio.