Badminton fans across the world must’ve heaved a sigh of relief when the Korean Badminton Association reduced its ban on its four women’s doubles players from two years to six months. Lifetime bans on its two coaches were reduced to four years. Most felt that the players were victims of a system and did not deserve the harshness of a two-year ban.
The Korea association’s decision was the latest twist in a saga that we probably haven’t seen the last of.
We had little inkling of what was to follow when Badminton World Federation (BWF) disqualified four pairs – two Korean and one each from China and Indonesia) – midway through the badminton event at the Olympics. All four were guilty of making a farce out of the game. This was the first time I’ve seen spectators boo players off the arena, and the association just had to take action.
When the four pairs were disqualified, one assumed that would be the end of it, and that the badminton could go on. But suddenly, the story assumed totally different contours as the days went by.
The London Olympics had its first big controversy, and the global press converged at Wembley Hall. Most of them had probably never even seen a badminton game, and so the controversy gave them license to write all sorts of things. Some claimed ‘match-throwing’ was an inherent part of badminton; yet others questioned the need to have badminton as an Olympic sport! Instead of commenting on the quick and firm decision, and turning its attention back to high quality matches, armchair commentators were questioning the credibility of the sport. Suddenly, it began to appear that the sport was in threat, not so much from the thoughtless antics of its players, but from vested interests elsewhere who had pounced on an opportunity to malign the sport.
To those of us who saw the events unfold, our thoughts shifted from despair (at the match-throwing) to concern (at the fallout of the disqualification), and to to anger (at the skewed perception of badminton). Alongside, several questions emerged, and the answers to these are still unclear:
- Badminton has had a problem with match-throwing, mostly because players are expected to fall in line with team management decisions. Should players, instructed by their coaches to lose, refuse to fall in line and stay true to their conscience?
- Should players be punished? After all, they were acting under instructions. But then again, why shouldn’t they? Aren’t they the faces of the sport? Aren’t they the ones rewarded for winning titles? Shouldn’t they take the rap for playing poorly?
- Why blame the group format for ‘match-throwing’? Matches have been thrown even in the elimination system, especially when teams of the same nation take on each other. We’ve seen it in other major tournaments.
- What will be the fallout of the disqualification? How will the relationship of China, Indonesia and Korea with BWF take shape over the next few months? Will badminton’s future as an Olympic sport be in danger? That appears unlikely, for badminton has consistently been among the top-viewed Olympic sports on TV.
- What lessons will the national associations pick out of the Olympic scandal? Will they ensure that their teams play to their best in future? Or will teams learn to conceal losses in apparently competitive matches?
- Ethically, who should be blamed for this situation? Match throwing happens in all sports. Why should badminton be an exception? Does this call for a review by all sports associations of the way forward?
What we saw in London was not just four teams trying to joust for better quarterfinal opponents; we saw national interest taking precedence over sporting interests. For a while, the players forgot that what keeps the sport alive are the fans and the spectators. For long, the interests of the public have been compromised by the national associations. One hopes the Korean association’s punishment will serve as a precedent, and a warning to future generations of players to approach every match in earnest.