A recent staff memo reminded everyone in our sports department about the proper use of the term “odds-on favorite.” Clear, concise, it framed the primer around horse racing. No big deal, I said to myself, because it’s a term I rarely use. In a world full of favorites, front-runners, and chest-beaters, my eye usually goes to the underdog.
Anyway, by midweek, when word from London broke about those no good, dirty shuttlecockers, I ended up in a brief discussion with one of my bosses on the subject of cheating. In case you missed it, a total of eight female badminton players, from China, South Korea, and Indonesia, were ejected from Olympus because they deliberately fired their shots into the net, smacking the birdie purposely out of bounds, or otherwise turned Les Jeux Olympiques into a late-night TV joke.
Outrageous. Even by backyard badminton standards. Play to win or go grill yourself a hot dog and have another beer, you loser. The women were throwing games, sandbagging, playing the system, attempting to steer themselves to a more favorable matchup later in the round-robin format.
It was so blatant that the crowd booed, vociferously. The bug-eyed referee waved a black card, which is something I’ve never seen, but then again, I haven’t watched any badminton since a family reunion in ’59. In general, though, more sports could use black cards and more bug-eyed refs. Assorted officials, within the game and all around it, voiced appropriate outrage over the badminton gone bad in London.
“Sport is competitive,’’ duly noted IOC vice president Craig Reedie, as reported by the Associated Press. “If you lose the competitive element, then the whole thing becomes nonsense.’’
Even Lin Dan, in London as the second-best male badminton player in all of China, noted, “This is definitely not within the Olympic spirit.’’
Brave words from a Chinese man, not only because his government can be, shall we say, a bit right of touchy-feely when it comes to free and fair-minded thinkers, but also because two of the miscreants, Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang, are Chinese. Here’s to you, Lin Dan, Mr. Odds-On-Favorite-To-Find-A-New-Sport-Of-Choice-When-You-Get-Home man.
Back in the office, I initially had a hard time convincing one of my bosses that the eight women cheated. He wasn’t sure what they did really fit the standard. Standard!? Just as there are no rules in a knife fight, there is no standard when it comes to cheating. It’s the old pornography standard: can’t define it, but you know it when you see it. If the head can’t figure it out, leave it to the heart.
We knew it here in the Hub in April 1980 when Rosie Ruiz was the first woman to scoot across the finish line at the Marathon. Did we see her cut the line in Kenmore Square? Uh, no, but . . .
We knew it in 1987 when Joe Niekro, then pitching for the Twins, was caught on the mound with an emery board and small patch of sandpaper in his pocket. Busted. We didn’t see him doctor a ball or grit up his cheatin’ fingers, but . . .
We knew it in 2001 when an “older looking’’ Danny Almonte, after striking out 62 of 72 batters in the Little League World Series, was found to be 14 years old, two years over the age limit. DNA testing still doesn’t exist to provide a definitive DOB for any of us, but . . .
Maybe, like the eight dastardly badminton players, some of us didn’t want to believe any of the above cheated, but they did, and they all paid the price. Ruiz was stripped of her leafy crown. Niekro was bounced for 10 games (brother Phil, the story goes, sent him a belt sander and lengthy extension cord). Almonte’s team from the Bronx, the Baby Bombers, had all of its records wiped from the books.
Olympus has been here many times before, just not, we believe, in badminton, a sport that now has officially cracked the racket over both feet. We know the list of Olympic drug cheats (see: Ben Johnson, Marion Jones, et al) is too long to recap, as it is in all games outside the Five Rings.
The closest comparison to the latest flap might be the Summer Games of 1976, in Montreal, where Russian pentathlete Boris Onischenko rigged his fencing equipment (epee) to register touches even if, like the cheating badmintoners, he swung and missed. Close inspection of his sword’s handle revealed the hot-wiring, promptly earning Boris the nickname “Disonischenko.’’
Soviet officials tossed Onischenko out of the athletes’ village the same night as his DQ. Rumor had it that he was soon back in the USSR driving a cab in Kiev. Dead battery? Jump starts no problem for Boris.
Badminton is a big — and most times fair, honest, and competitive — sport in only a few countries. By and large, it remains a niche sport at Olympus, first contested at the 1992 Games at Barcelona. It likely will survive this flap, in part because its governing body (Badminton World Federation) acted swiftly, bouncing the eight cheating, no-good shuttlecockers less than 24 hours after their nefarious nettings.
“Good on them,’’ added Reedie.
Swifter. Higher. Faster. Those three words are meant to say it all about the Olympics.
But every two years, be it the Games of winter or summer, “cheatier” works its way up the mountain, whether we want to believe it or not, whether it’s a bunch of innocent-looking girls swiping their delicate rackets to devious ends, or a human steam engine named Ben Johnson tearing down the track in Seoul, with his engine stoked with steroidal coal.
I’d like to think that it all ends here, in London 2012, the Games in which cheating athletes and their coaches so lowered themselves that they attempted even to rig badminton. But I doubt it. Because none of us needs a staff memo to tell us that these are the kind of games people will always play.