With all the attention paid to doping tests and other types of cheating, we often think of cheaters as those who partake in some heinous plot to win a match by nefarious means. However, cheating and strategy took a new turn at the London Olympics, when 8 badminton players were disqualified for taking part in a heinous plot to lose.
Now this is one of those stories which might at first seem simple and straightforward, but on closer examination dredges up moral and philosophical questions, and can even inform the strategies of martial artists, politicians, generals and business people.
When I heard that 4 teams had conspired to lose, my first thought was that this could be like other sports scandals in the past, where crime syndicates bribed or coerced players to lose, so that the criminals could profit from bets on long-shots. This set me to considering the possible senarios which would lead some of the top athletes in their sport to abandon life-long goals and their countries’ national pride, by making such an obvious attempt to lose (and there attempt was extremely obvious.) You might say that these teams were penalized not merely for cheating, but for doing it so badly. You did not need to know much about badnminton to realize that these competitors were playing less than their best. It takes character to be a “good loser”, but it takes a very good actor to lose convincingly. These players were drawing jeers from the crowd as each team tried to play more abyssmally than the other.
At first I thought that their families must have been threatened, or they were promised huge amounts of money. But the fact that they made such a plain show of it had me considering that perhaps they intended for everyone to see that they were throwing the match. In this way perhaps they were hoping to expose a plot in which they really wanted no part. Perhaps the players were between a rock and a hard place, and were making a play to expose the corruption.
No such luck.
It seems that they were participating in a long standing strategy of some teams to lose certain matches so as to manipulate themselves into a favourable future match.
You see, in the past badminton tournaments used an elimination system similar to the one used in tennis. When you lost your match, you were finished. The problem with this system was that the worst teams only got to play once, and some of the best teams never made it to the finals because they got paired with other top level teams early in the competition. The other problem with this system was that the whole event was over too quickly, and with so few matches the sport got too little exposure, especially in countries where the sport was less popular.
By switching to a system that used a “pool play system” for elimination rounds and “elimination play” for the finals, the worst teams were given the opportunity to play more than once and the best teams were more likely to make the semi finals. This system also extended the tournament for a few more days, giving olympic badminton some more air time and helping to boost the sport. This means that the sport gets more profitable broadcasting in countries like China (where there is a huge fan base). It even increased the profile of the sport in countries where it is so unpopular that they don’t stand a chance of winning. Watching your own country lose is more interesting for some broadcasters than watching two other countries compete.
This comes with some problems though, and this is apparently not the first time that badminton has seen such behaviour. Without getting into the nitty gritty, lets just say that because one Chinese team lost a match, the other Chinese team would meet their comrades in the semi finals if they won all their preliminary matches, but they would meet them in the finals if they lost one match. If the Chinese faced each other in the semi finals, the best they could hope for would be a gold and a bronze. With less good fortune they might get a silver and a bronze, or only a single bronze. If they met in the finals, however, they would be guaranteed a gold and a silver. So, they conspired to lose.
Losing in a preliminary round would not have been a problem if the opposing team wanted to win. But when both teams are in the same situation, they both want equally to lose.
I must emphasize that losing in order to win is not a new strategy in badminton. It is a widely recognized practice among players and coaches, although it is despised by many. Officials, however, seemed to be shocked that this could ever happen, even though coaches have admitted to fixing matches in the past. It is not unheard of for coaches or bureaucrats to determine in advance which of their teams will win. Throwing a match is a vile betrayal of the sport if it is done for selfish reasons, just as it can be heroic when done selflessly. For an example of honourable sportsmanship, search the name “Bjørnar Håkensmoen” and “ski pole”.
Losing or deliberately giving your opponent the advantage when the stakes are so high can be a display of the greatest human ideals and reflects well on the nation and it’s culture.. In the case of the 8 disqualified Badminton players, however, it appears to be a display of the corruption of the nation and a cultural ambivalence toward fair play. In some countries the people who commit traffic violations expect to be able to pay the police officer. In other countries such corruption is inconceivable.
There have been instances, in sport and in war, where pitched battles became friendly strolls in the park. These outbreaks of peace are not always the creations of bureaucrats or crooks.
The Christmas peace outbreaks in WW1 were certainly not officially sanctioned. Enemy soldiers climbed out of their trenches, traded food, sang songs, and played soccer in “no man’s land.”
I remember a story about a soccer match in England in which the two teams battled fiercely to a tie, until the result of another match was posted on the screen above them. Both teams became aware that they would both advance to the finals if they tied, but only one team would advance if they didn’t tie. So, the game remained tied for the second half while the players basically ambled around field chatting with each other and passing the ball back and forth. It was not an exciting match, but it might be the sort of thing that you would pay to see, just once.
Investing in Loss
To quote Zheng Manzheng (郑曼青 / 鄭曼青 Zhèng Mànqīng) (July 29, 1902 – March 26, 1975)
“There has never been a person who has studied the martial arts who did not first desire to win and gain the advantage. Now when I say, “Learn to invest in loss,” who is willing to do this?” Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Cheng Man Ch’ing (trans. B.P.J. Lo and M. Inn).
Investing in loss can have different meanings depending on the context.
In training with a partner it refers to the development of the awareness and power that comes when you are unconcerned with achieving a tactical advantage and are focused more on understanding the subtle dynamic of losing. By observing your losses without ego and competitiveness, you will develop an awareness which will eventually create effortless automatic defences for you.
Consider this analogy: If you have tension in your shoulders but are not consciously aware of it. You will continue to be tense, awkward, and inefficient. You may develop back and neck problems and headaches, or strained muscles which cause even more tension. However, if you can improve your conscious awareness of the shoulder tension, the mere act of observing the tension will cause a relaxation response. As you practice being aware of the muscles you will automatically get better at being relaxed. After a while, your shoulders will not become tense unless you want them to.
Investing in loss, then, refers to the practice of a profound understanding and awareness in defeat. This awareness leads to inevitable victory. In tai chi we sometimes call this “understanding Jing” or “the quality of power expressed in understanding.”
When we develop this skill to a high level, we can actually use this ability to “invest in loss” as a combat strategy. The confidence which grows of awareness means we can allow the opponent to attack while we offer no resistance and hold no desire to oppose the attack. Our subtle and profound awareness lets us follow, join, contact and adhere to the opponent’s centre. It will appear that we did nothing and the opponent is defeated by the nature of the attack.
To invest in loss requires a deep intellectual and corporeal understanding of the nature of Yin and Yang.
You can call it a “skill” or a “trick” or a “quality”, but the opponent might say it is not fair. Whatever they call it, no one but us should be able to perceive exactly what is happening.
This is where the four badminton teams at the London Olympics went wrong. They had become so accustomed to using this losing-to-win strategy and getting away with it that they forgot it was cheating. They even thought they could make a spectacle of themselves and still be allowed to continue. In the past they were able to use this tactic easily by making “mistakes” or by suddenly developing an temporary knee or ankle injury. But when all four players on the best badminton teams in the world play before a world audience and can’t hit the shuttlecock over the net, someone is going to say something.
Now we could scold the badminton association for not paying attention to the problem in the past and then suddenly disqualifying these teams. We could ridicule them for appearing shocked that such a thing could happen. But the rules are clear, even when they are difficult to enforce. The fact that some players and coaches were able to get away with it in the past does not legitimize the practice.
There are many ways to cheat, and some of them are easier to get away with than others. But attempting to justify it on those grounds is like a car thief saying, “It isn’t stealing if the keys are somewhere in the car.”
It is like blaming a rape on a short skirt.
There is no excuse for cheating, and the fact that they had cheated before and got away with it doesn’t make the practice legal. They can blame the coaches, or the lack of previous enforcement, or the political pressure from the big boss back home. But it was the athletes who did it, and they will pay for it. This is the nature of sport.
Some may point to the fact that it was only some Asian teams who were disqualified and that there may be some social, political, or cultural influence at play here. What, for example, is the impact of state-owned sport? What about communism? What about capitalism? What about Confucianism?
What about The Art of War?
The ancient classic tome of military strategy by general Sunzi (Sun Tzu) contains wisdom and tactics which have been applied not only by many military leaders, but also by politicians, business leaders, and martial artists.
The same strategies are also frequently applied to sport.
The failure of these strategies occurs when the strategist forgets the big picture or deceives themselves about their real goal.
Sometimes they just fail to account for the unique context of their situation.Strategies which may be considered acceptable or even brilliant in warfare can be self defeating or reprehensible in sport.
The Olympics developed as an alternative to war, not a replacement for it. Sport is honourable and beneficial to society so long as it is uncorrupted by politics, racism, and international disputes. Even fervent nationalism will not taint the endeavour if political corruption does not overwhelm what we call the Olympic spirit.
Imagine a world where the resources are spent on sport instead of war. I’m sure we would even have some left over for other social programs, enterprise, and health care.
Sunzi advises us that no country has ever profited from protracted conflict. He does not say that no country has ever profited from fitness, high achievement, fun, and sportsmanship.
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