It is easy to define cheating, but tricky to use only one, unchanging definition in sports.
During the 2012 Olympic Games in London people were shocked when four women’s badminton teams purposely tried to lose a final match in the round robin pool stage of the Olympic tournament to gain a more favorable draw in the knockout rounds eventually leading to the gold medal match.
The teams were disqualified, the players were shamed, the coaches were investigated, and officials from china, South Korea, and Indonesia—the nations of the offending teams—were quick to issue apologies and try to restore their standing in the word of Olympic sports.
But despite the condemnations and apologies, the practice of “gaming the game” has a long history in sports, and is naïve for IOC and Badminton World Federation (BWF) officials to think otherwise. They know that this occurs regularly in tournaments organized in this way where teams often have an incentive to lose in order to eventually win a medal or prize money.
Whenever the stakes for winning a medal or money are high most professional coaches and athletes will use strategies to achieve their ultimate goal, even if the strategies violate game rules, or involve under-performing or strategically losing in the short run to be successful in the long run. In fact, when they don’t do this, many fans and commentators accuse them of being naïve or incompetent.
Most of us who follow sports know that strategic rule violations and strategic “tanking” (not trying to do one’s best or win a game, match, or contest) occur regularly. For the most part, we see it as “part of the game.” Examples include the following:
· Strategic rule violations: Basketball players are taught to commit “good fouls” and “hard fouls,” and NFL teams deliberately take penalties by letting the 30-second play clock run out so they can gain better field goal position or waste time at the end of a close game.
· Strategic under-performance: Baseball pitchers intentionally walk a batter instead of using their skills to face the batter directly, basketball teams try to run out the clock by holding the ball rather than trying their best to score, top swimmers slack off during qualifying heats to save their energy for the ultimate medal race, and playoff-bound NFL teams use second and third team players instead of their best players in late season games that they can lose without affecting their place in the playoffs.
· Strategic losing: Tennis players tank matches to be eliminated early from low status tournaments to save their bodies and let injuries heal before upcoming high status tournaments, and NBA teams don’t try to win late-season games so they can be placed in a team lottery for the number one draft pick.
Of course, there’s a difference between violating rules in an effort to win and not trying to win or purposely losing. But this difference becomes fuzzy when the outcome of an end-of-season NFL game has no bearing on winning subsequent playoff games and the Super Bowl. Similarly, losing or tying a match in a group pool badminton match to gain an advantage in the draw for the knock out rounds in the Olympics can be part of an overall strategy to win a medal.
So what is cheating and what isn’t? When are violating rules, under-performing, and losing—or at least not trying to win—a form of cheating and when are they part of an accepted strategy for obtaining an ultimate win? These were the issues raised by the badminton teams during the 2012 Olympic Games.
To put this in perspective for people in the United States, imagine that Misty May and Kerri Walsh, the best beach volleyball team in the world, strategically lost a match that would not affect their quest for a medal but would prevent them from meeting and possibly eliminating another skilled US team that also had a chance to win a medal. Imagine further that this strategy put both teams in position to win gold and silver medals by allowing them to play each other in the gold medal match. Imagine even further that the US beach volleyball coach told them to use this strategy and their sponsor—also the sponsor for the other US team—told them that this strategy was a win-win for everyone involved.
With all this at stake, let’s imagine that May and Walsh cleverly tank their match and eventually meet the other US team in the finals, guaranteeing them the gold and silver medals. Additionally, this double win increased the fund raising power of the USOC and the volleyball federation, and increased visibility for their sponsor that gave endorsement contract extensions to the four women and additional money to promote beach volleyball among young people in the United States.
This may sound like a far-fetched scenario, but it is very similar to the scenario facing the Chinese team in the badminton scandal. Given this similarity, here are questions from a U.S. perspective: What would be the response of fans in the U.S. where Olympic medals are used as part of a global scorecard for nations? Would they condemn May and Walsh as cheaters or praise them as wise tournament bracket managers? How would media commentators represent May and Walsh to their audience—as cheaters or “team players”?
Here are questions from perspectives outside the U.S.: If the Olympics were in Rio, Brazil and many Brazilians of moderate means had sacrificed to buy ticket to see the best in the world play during the day of the tanked match, would they see May and Walsh as cheaters and demand refunds for their tickets? How would Sky TV commentators represent May and Walsh to their European audience—as ugly or loyal Americans? And how would the IOC and other officials Rio Olympics respond?
These questions raise issues about who draws the line between cheating and acceptable strategy in various situations and how they make their decision. For example, if there were no spectators or only nonpaying spectators who knew the players, there would be no issue and certainly no moral condemnations of the players. In fact, in this situation, the team benefiting from a loss might just forfeit the math so the rest of the competition schedule could continue.
But the cheater versus acceptable strategy line shifts in the case of commercial sports where sponsors seek revenues, promoters seek legitimacy, and paying spectators seek excitement. This is why Sebastian Coe, the chief organizer of the London 2012 Olympic Games said in response to the badminton scandal, “It’s depressing. Who wants to sit through something like that?” Of course, what he meant was that “we set high ticket prices (about $115 for the badminton session) with the promise that spectators would see athletes conform to the spirit of the Olympic Games. Coe is familiar with the reality facing athletes for whom winning medals is usually a life changing achievement, but he chose to view the situation from the perspective of the spectators. However, neither he nor other officials refunded money to those who bought tickets to the tanked matches.
The athletes who make it to the Olympics are well aware of “spirit of the Olympic Games,” but many of them have heard it so many times from people who profit from saying it that they see it more as a marketing slogan than a non-negotiable, all-encompassing principle. They also know about the overwhelming commercialization of the Olympics, the power and influence of corporate sponsors and media companies, the billions of dollars that change hands in connection with the games, and the life changing stakes associated with winning medals. And this makes it beyond naïve for IOC and BWF officials to think that the abstract notion of “Olympic Spirit” will be the sole guide for athletes in the Olympics. So why did they organize the badminton competition in a way that gives teams an incentive to tank matches in a quest for medals?
Of course, the spectators who consume the Olympics and believe myths about the “essential purity and goodness of sports” are likely to condemn competitors that fail to reaffirm their beliefs. It is easier for them to condemn individual athletes and coaches than it is to revise long held beliefs that sport somehow transcends the realities of everyday life.