NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Not using one's best efforts to win a match. Few Americans know much about the sport of badminton, but that rule will likely be the subject of a lot of discussion over the next few days. Today, badminton officials at the London Olympics disqualified eight players for tanking. Women's doubles teams from South Korea, Indonesia and China drew boos yesterday when it looked like they deliberately lost preliminary matches to engineer more congenial match-ups later in the tournament.
So tell us: Is this sickening, or is this strategy? Where's the line between gamesmanship and cheating? 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Howard Berkes and Tom Goldman are covering the Olympic Games for NPR. They join us now from London. And, gentlemen, welcome back to the program.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Hey there, Neal.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Neal.
CONAN: And let's start with Howard. First off, how bad did this look?
BERKES: Well, you know, a badminton shuttlecock can move, like, close to 200 miles an hour. And these were little, you know, taps and hitting it purposely out of bounds, and it looked pretty bad. And the people in the stands, they knew it right away. They booed. They hissed. They hollered. They shouted. Even the official at one of these matches went over and warned the players to be more serious, which they were for a while. It was quite obvious that this was not Olympic badminton. This might've been closer to the kind of backyard badminton that Tom and I have engaged in occasionally.
CONAN: I wondered what you guys did in your downtime there in London.
GOLDMAN: That's about 50 miles an hour we hit the shuttlecock.
CONAN: In the meantime, Tom, the purpose of this, they're in these preliminary pools, and they were trying to figure out ways - I gather the Chinese were trying to figure out a way to avoid playing each other.
GOLDMAN: Given the chance to cheat, people will. And it seems that this new format, which goes back to the initial format of Olympic badminton in 1992, to have this pool with which you can - in which you can jockey to then get a better position in the so-called knockout round, it created this situation. That's where people are laying the blame. It used to be after the first year of badminton when they had it this way, then they went to a knockout round. And when it's a knockout round, people don't want to be knocked out. So they win, and there's not this problem.
CONAN: And I read more about badminton today, I think, than I have in my entire life, but...
BERKES: That's three of us.
CONAN: I gather, Howard, that this is not unknown in international competition, particularly when you have multiple teams from China, that they don't want to play each other. And the sport not - it's a backyard game in America. It's a big deal in East Asia.
BERKES: This is what I've been hearing from reporters who cover badminton more regularly, is that this has been a problem since they reintroduced this way of elimination, of this system that they've just started. And this is the first Olympics that's had this system. And I think that people weren't prepared for this sort of strategic - if you want to call it - play.
Certainly, the spectators here weren't. And it was a big shock to the International Olympic Committee when they saw this happen, and the London Organizing Committee. And the Badminton Federation was embarrassed by this, by this type of play at the Olympics because, you know, the idea here is that there are people who, you know, they train their entire sporting lives to get to the Olympics. And then they're supposed to, you know, compete and compete hard. That's one of the big selling points of the games. So when you have people kind of slacking off, it doesn't look good, no matter how strategic it might be.
And I have to say, there is a rule that says - the Badminton Federation is very specific. There is a rule that says you have to use your best effort. And it was citing that rule that caused the disqualification of these players, as well as "conducting themselves in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport," to quote what the badminton federation said today.
CONAN: And South Korea, though, protested. Their protest was promptly rejected. The Chinese, though, issued an interesting statement.
BERKES: The Chinese - right. The Chinese Olympic Committee disowned this kind of behavior very quickly and accepted the ruling of the badminton federation.
GOLDMAN: And, Neal, here's an interesting quote that my shed a little more light on that, why they accepted that. This is from the Indonesian Olympic team leader, quoted as accusing Chinese players of losing on purpose in the past. He said, "China has been doing this so many times, and they never get sanctioned by the BWF," the Badminton World Federation. So it seems to me that they kind of know what's up.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on this conversation because there's a bigger question. Is this, well, gamesmanship, just to work yourself into a better position later in the tournament because you're not tanking the tournament. You're just tanking one game. Or is this, well, cheating, cheating your opponents, cheating the viewers, cheating the game in some way. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ben's on the line from Greenville in North Carolina.
BEN: Hi. Thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.
BEN: I'm a high school teacher, and I run a chess club. And whenever our chess team plays in tournaments, there is a stated rule in most every tournament that players from the same school in a team event will not face each other unless absolutely necessary. I find it interesting that, you know, the two Chinese teams would have face up against each other so early in the tournament. That seems a bit of a flaw. And then I also have a question. Is there any provision in Olympic rules for a competitor to forfeit a match without stepping out of the competition altogether? This is the - has another of these teams have forfeited for whatever reason to accept, I think, a loss without actually playing and intentionally tanking? I have a feeling there would have been a different reaction.
CONAN: Howard, I'm not sure there's any provision. They would be the badminton rules, not the Olympic rules, but, yeah.
BERKES: Right. They would be badminton rules because the federation controls what happens with the sport, even at the Olympics. I haven't read the rules that carefully, so I don't know. I would suspect that because it's the Olympics, you can't just forfeit and then leave - I mean, then expect to stay in. For most sports that I'm aware of, if you forfeit, you're out. You're gone. And I would suspect that that's the case.
As for the notion of competing against people from your own country, in most sports at the Olympics - Tom, correct if I'm wrong - you qualify for the Olympics based on your performance before the games. You meet a qualifying standard of some sort, and there's a limit to how many athletes can compete from any particular country. But if only one athlete - if a lesser number qualifies, then you have fewer people. And if more than one qualifies, then, you know, you might have two or three and...
CONAN: Well, we - as we learned, two female gymnasts from the United States, but only two, not the third one, who would have (unintelligible).
BERKES: Right. And the - right. And in swimming, you know, only so many American swimmers would be able to swim in a certain event, but it's based on their qualifying times. So you have American swimmers swimming against each other. And actually, they take it very seriously. They're very competitive. Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps, they drive each other to do better. One of them doesn't hold back so that the other one might do better. And in no case am I aware of would somebody be able to sort of lose and benefit from that.
CONAN: And, Tom, I think the analogy that a lot of people might come is, what about the Williams sisters?
GOLDMAN: Yeah. Well, they - that's true. And they have played each other before, and they talked how - about how painful it is. But I think when the games begin, they're out there trying to beat each other. So I think, you know, athletes learn that, you know, you make that separation between - I mean, the Williams sisters, that's an extreme example. You know, you've got athletes on the same team who are not as close as the sisters, but they realize this is part of it. And if we're both is going to try and win, we're just going to like each other off the field of play, but not on the field of play.
CONAN: Let's go next to Aaron, Aaron on the line with us from San Francisco.
AARON: Oh, hi. Thanks for taking my call. I guess, I don't know much about badminton, but I would like to say that I think the punishment that was meted out to these athletes, as I understand it, I feel like it's very justified, and I think it's a great message. It reminds - I grew up playing basketball all the way through high school and college. And this brought back vivid memories of a locker conversation where a bunch of my teammates and I were kind of in, you know, an analogous situation where we're in like a, you know, coming toward the end of the regular season. And we're short of a spot in our, you know, upcoming championship tournament, but the result of our last couple of games would dictate our seeding and who we play and, you know, all that sort of thing.
And basically, we were talking about, well, you know, maybe if we do - if we lose this game, then we won't have to play so and so. And we'll kind of have an easier path to the semi-finals and whatever. And I guess, our, you know, the coach heard us and really like burst in, like clearly spur of the moment anger and lectured us about the nature of competition. I remember him calling us a bunch of cowards and, you know, it felt bad at that time, but I get now. And I remember him saying - I don't know word for word - but basically saying, what you're doing is admitting that you don't think you can beat this team. And you're also saying that you assume that you can beat this other team. And that is - it's - one is cowardly and the other is arrogant. And I won't have either one of those things in my - on my team.
CONAN: Wow. A good coach.
AARON: And it was like - it was one of the best things that ever happened to us, I think.
CONAN: Gene Hackman played that part?
AARON: Maybe similar to that. But it was - like he basically said, you guys are fundamentally missing the point of competition. And if you learn nothing else - like that - like go out there and try to win every game because that's what you do. And I - it was wonderful.
GOLDMAN: A fabulous call and fabulous story from Aaron. Sadly, at these highest levels, that doesn't always play out. We were just having a discussion here in the NPR group about, you know, if I didn't - someone was saying, if I didn't - couldn't go my hardest, I just wouldn't go. And, you know, it's very pure and simple, and that's what we like to think of with the Olympics, but, you know, there are a lot of other factors involved. There is - there's money. There are great riches in some of these countries for people who win gold medals. So you can see how desperate athletes may want to be to get that gold. Yeah, I think once you get up to the high - higher levels, unfortunately - I mean, you do - I think most athletes are the way Aaron describes the situation with him, but you get some who aren't.
CONAN: Aaron, thanks very much for the call.
AARON: Oh, thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Tom Goldman and with Howard Berkes, two of NPR's correspondents covering the Olympics games in London. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And this email from Bradley in Portland: We see runners and swimmers let up during preliminary meets. Why is this different?
BERKES: Because runners and swimmers aren't trying to lose. They're saving their strength. They're competing as much as they need to to qualify for that round, but they're not in the realm of deliberately trying to lose. And what these badminton players are doing is they're deliberately trying to lose. I think there's a difference there.
CONAN: And here - this is from Robert: Disqualify badminton players for not trying. Trying to do what? If the goal is to win a gold medal, then I would say they were doing their best. It's the badminton federation who should be disqualified for gross incompetence.
BERKES: Well, you know, I think one big question here is - as we said, this is a new rule, a new way of doing it in badminton. And we have heard that this has happened before. So the question is, what kind of enforcement has taken place so far? And was it reasonable for these players to think that this would be something that they could get away with, given is taking place in other tournaments in which this rule has been in effect.
I don't know the answer to that question, but I think it's a good one. It may be that the federation was sort of caught here, having a new rule, it having perhaps been abused before, but not having a crackdown on it before. And with the spotlight of the Olympics, it looks bad. All of a sudden, you know, there's a crackdown.
CONAN: Let' see - here's another email. This is from Nick: Mostly, it's unsportsmanlike conduct. You always honor your opponent by giving your best. And I think, Tom, that's come up in other context. I mean, for example, we have the instance of NBA teams years ago playing to lose - it look like - at the end of the season so they would get a better draft pick. When that came up, they switched around to get the lottery. There were any number of instances and not too long ago either of point shaving in college basketball. And this is where a team, well, we're not playing to lose. We're playing to win by less than eight points, which is the betting spread. And that would allow gamblers to profit, but these things are hard to judge. Those are clearly crimes - fighters throwing fights. This comes up in a lot of contexts.
GOLDMAN: It does, yeah. And actually, the NBA thing still - it's said still goes on. I mean, you have a draft lottery that people are trying to position themselves to get an even better pick in the draft lottery. It does go on. And, you know, I mean, we all like to think that sport is the way we think of it in "Chariots of Fire," which is a common theme here at these Olympics, being in London. You know, hear theme song often, before the medal ceremonies. It's...
GOLDMAN: ...very gentlemanly...
CONAN: Sorry about that.
GOLDMAN: ...gentlemanly, amateur athletics in the Olympics ideals, which I think is why that movie is so popular. They just recently re-released it here in Britain, as a matter of fact. So - but the reality is often different.
CONAN: Let's get one, last caller in. This machine is not cooper - there we go. Susie(ph) is on the line with us from Columbus.
SUSIE: Oh, hi. Thanks, Neal. I wonder how it's different from a pitcher intentionally walking a great hitter. And I don't think the audience was defrauded. I think they were watching players using their brains to go for the gold medal, which everybody has always told them is the goal. And that if there is a fault, it's the Olympics organizers who did their draw wrong and who are the ones raking in the money, who defrauded the audience by not telling them that this is built into the problem. And on "Chariots of Fire," you know, it changed the story. The - Abraham had not won the race going around the university, and so it was a much bigger sacrifice for his friend to give it up for him in the - in real life, and they cut that out of the movie.
CONAN: All right.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. So, Tom, quickly, the analogy of walking Barry Bonds intentionally to get to a lesser hitter.
BERKES: Well, you know, there are - the pitcher is losing that confrontation, but I go back to what Howard said. They're not losing the game to do that.
CONAN: All right. And you'll be pleased, I don't think this is the "Chariots of Fire" theme.
BERKES: Thank you.
CONAN: Tom Goldman and Howard Berkes joined us from London where they're covering the Olympics games. I expect more on the badminton controversy later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. So stay tuned for that.
Tomorrow, reconsidering violence in entertainment after the Colorado theater shooting. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.