This Olympics has been marred by dishonorableness of a certain type: call it “strategic losing.”
The most widely-reported case was the Chinese, Indonesian, and South Korean women badminton teams obviously throwing some preliminary matches in order to secure a better draw later in the tournament. They were expelled from the Olympics.
Another involved Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi, who quit his 800m heat, apparently because he knew he wouldn’t win it and wanted to save himself for the next day’s 1500m finals. The Olympic authorities kicked Makhloufi out of the games temporarily, but reinstated him when a doctor supported his claim of a knee injury. The “injury” must have healed miraculously, since Makhloufi won the 1500m the next day.
A third case involved a British cyclist who deliberately crashed after a bad start. By doing so, he got a restart and ended up winning the gold. A fourth case involved Japan’s women soccer team, who had been instructed by their coach not to win a preliminary contest against South Africa, allowing the team to stay in Cardiff and avoid the stress of travel. Neither of these two cases drew disciplinary action.
Question: Is it okay to strategically lose?
New York Times sports reporter Sam Borden has argued that the Olympic authorities have no principled grounds for penalizing the badminton teams. Borden writes:
They simply looked at the information that was presented to them, looked at their ultimate goal and went in the direction that seemed to have the best chance of leading them there. A loss in those matches, they decided, would give them a better path to winning a medal. How is this different from, say, a swimmer who coasts to the wall in a preliminary heat or a runner who jogs past the finish line in a semifinal to conserve energy for the final? Is it even that much different from a baseball player bunting?
Later, Borden expresses skepticism about the notion that athletes should try their best, if doing so doesn’t maximize their chance of winning:
It is worth noting, too, that the notion of “always give it your all” or whatever other hoary chestnut you can imagine a hyperactive Little League coach spewing in a pregame huddle is largely Western. As the British have been so quick to remind us over the past two weeks, fair play and sportsmanship were invented here. But what does that truly mean? Play to win in a meaningless match, only to be rewarded with a more difficult path later on?
I think Borden’s reasoning is all wrong.
First, the contempt we feel for the dishonorable parties in these cases is hardly represented only in “hoary chestnuts” dispensed by overwrought little league coaches. In all the above cases, many if not most of the other athletes or teams, longtime commentators, and fans found the relevant actions to be contemptible. This demonstrates that some conventions of sportsmanship were flouted. Perhaps Borden thinks such conventions are irrelevant. But it is disingenuous to portray our contempt of this sort of play as outmoded or idiosyncratic.
Do sportsmanship conventions matter? As discussed in a previous post on cycling and honor, athletes establish unofficial conventions meant to preserve fairness, respect, and the spirit of their sport. Sometimes these conventions are more permissive than the official rules (in cycling, they permit doping), and sometimes they are more restrictive (in cycling, you must wait for leaders felled by freak accidents).
In any event, Borden’s examples of permissible cases of not playing your best are ones in which the conventions are respected, not flouted. And if you think about it, there couldn’t be a convention of the sort of play demonstrated by the badminton teams. If every team acted like them, no one would try to score a point in the preliminary matches, so those matches couldn’t serve their purpose. Nor would anyone care to watch people play in such a way.
Nevertheless, we should acknowledge some special difficulties raised by strategic losing in the Olympics. This is because honorable conventions must respect the spirit of the sport in question, and the game in question may be different when played at the Olympics.
If athletes and coaches are to act honorably, they must know the unofficial conventions. But Olympic rules and procedures are sometimes different from the usual ones (and this was a factor in both the badminton and track cases). Teams come from very different cultures and competitive standards. That makes it harder for unofficial conventions to establish themselves.
But the most important difficulty raised by the Olympics with regard to honor is that the Olympics isn’t just another sporting institution. It is a celebration of a particularly exalted form of humanism that uses sport as a means of discovering and showcasing human excellence. That makes strategic losing even more suspect than it normally would be. The Olympics were not created so we could watch athletes jog off the track mid-race with bemused smiles on their faces. If athletes don’t subscribe to this ethos, no one is forcing them to compete.
In conclusion, I feel for the relevant officials, who really are in a difficult spot. How do you expel athletes who don’t break any official rules? Isn’t doing so opening the door to charges of arbitrary punishment? And how could an official body enforce an honor code—isn’t honor based on the unofficial conventions the competitors construct themselves?
Noting these difficulties, I would contend that the OIC or other relevant bodies should continue to discipline in such cases. This is because, again, the Olympics brings together groups too disparate to form a coherent culture on their own. Moreover, the Olympics comes only every four years, and lasts for only a couple of weeks. For these reasons, it’s good to send a clear message to all countries and future Olympians that the Olympics is about doing your best—not for yourself, but for the rest of us.