Faster, higher … dirtier: What happened to Olympic sportsmanship?

Olympic spirit undermined by ‘birdie-gate,’ alleged multi-million-dollar payouts and low-level scandals.

Playing dirty

Murad Sezer/Reuters

Michelle Li and Alex Bruce are as modest as badminton players come. And by Olympic standards, badminton is a humble sport. Yet for three glorious days during the Olympics, Wembley Arena in northwest London was their house—a cauldron of heat and commotion where even the hometown yobs, drunk before lunch, found themselves chanting “Bruce Li!” at a couple of Canadian women playing a sport with zero profile in the British Isles.

It will be months before their heads stop spinning. Having been bounced from the London Olympic tournament without a win, Li and Bruce had tied off their Olympic dreams and gone shopping in downtown London. Then they watched in astonishment as the reigning world champions, Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang of China, appeared to throw their final round-robin match—serving into the net, knocking birdies out of bounds as the crowd howled in outrage. “It was an eye-opener,” says Li, 20. “I never thought anyone could just purposely lose like that.”

Even then, the call from their coach at 1 p.m. the next day came as a surprise. Stay by your phones, Ram Nayyar advised: your Olympic journey might not be over. By suppertime, the word was official: the Chinese, along with two teams from South Korea and one from Indonesia, had been disqualified by the World Badminton Federation for tanking to obtain more favourable playoff matchups. More to the point, the Canadians were back in, and they weren’t about to squander their second life. The next day, they won a three-set battle of attrition in the quarter-finals against an Australian pair, Leanne Choo and Renuga Veeran, setting the stage for a semifinal battle against the world’s fifth-ranked team, Mizuki Fujii and Reika Kakiiwa of Japan.

By then, the story of their resurrection had gone viral. As they lined up against Fujii and Kakiiwa, Maple Leafs materialized throughout the 4,500-strong sellout crowd. During breaks in play, a leather-lunged Canuck in the southeast corner led the audience in “Bruce Li” chants. It was, says Bruce, with understatement, “a lot of fun.”

Not so much fun, though, for the stewards of the Olympic spirit. There are growing worries about malign forces compromising competition, thanks to a steady stream of low-level scandals whose cumulative effect is undermining confidence in the enterprise. Some revolve around simple questions of fair play, as when British cyclist Philip Hindes admitted he had conspired with teammates in team sprint to crash on purpose during a heat in order to force a restart under the rules of track cycling. “We were speaking yesterday, that if anything happens someone has to crash,” he shrugged. “So I did. I think they knew I’d done it on purpose.”

Other cases point to more sinister motives. On the same day “birdie-gate” came to light, a decision in a boxing match was overturned due to highly suspicious officiating and judging. Six times Satoshi Shimizu of Japan knocked down Azerbaijan’s Magomed Abdulhamidov in the third round of a bantamweight match. At one point, the Azeri fighter waved his right hand in apparent surrender. Yet the referee refused to stop the fight as required by Olympic rules, instead ordering Abdulhamidov to haul himself off the canvas. And when the scores came in, Shimizu stood gobsmacked: the judges had awarded Abdulhamidov a 22-17 victory.

“Why didn’t I win?” a baffled Shimizu asked the media afterward. “I don’t understand.” He might have been less surprised if he’d seen a BBC Newsnight investigation that last September unearthed documents suggesting Azerbaijan had paid at least $9 million to an international boxing organization in return for a guarantee that two Azerbaijanis would win gold medals in London. Bank transfer records showed the money was channeled through Switzerland to an organization owned by the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA), which oversees Olympic boxing. According to the report, the money originated with an Azeri government minister, Kamaladdin Heydarov, and was meant to shore up a financially ailing event in North America called the World Series of Boxing.

AIBA officials dismissed the allegations at the time as “ludicrous.” And last week they moved quickly to quell suspicion surrounding the Shimizu-Abdulhamidov fight, overturning the decision and placing the Turkmeni referee under investigation. The judges, however, escaped sanction.

Suffice to say, sport authorities distinguish between this sort of corruption and match-throwing designed to gain a competitive edge. Japan’s women’s soccer coach, Norio Sasaki, for example, escaped punishment after his players revealed he deliberately fielded a weak squad in a July 31 game against South Africa because winning the game would have sent the team through a tougher draw (“It’s something we needed to do in order to get a medal,” explained Japanese player Azusa Iwashimizu after playing to a 0-0 tie). And some ethicists agree. “Since when is strategy abusive to sport?” asked Julian Savulescu, director of the University of Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, in a blog post. “If there is a problem, then the rules for the draw should be changed.”

Still, it flies in the face of the soaring rhetoric of the Olympic oath, which calls on athletes and officials alike to act in “the true spirit of sportsmanship.”And it’s downright insulting to an increasingly savvy generation of fans, who are shelling out small fortunes for Olympic tickets: at the Shimizu-Abdulhamidov boxing match, where many spectators had travelled from other continents, boos and catcalls rained down from the stands.

As for badminton, some said birdie-gate would serve the sport in an indirect way, shining a light on its dark side while creating a pleasing underdog in the Bruce-Li duo. But the case is hard to stand up. Yu and Wang were said to be tanking in hope of avoiding an all-China matchup in the early elimination phase. But the gold-medal match was an all-China matchup, anyway, while Li and Bruce lost a bronze-medal match and quickly faded from view. With so few lessons learned, it might soon be time to attach a caveat to the Olympic motto: if necessary, slower, lower and weaker.

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