It’s hard to imagine that a sport more associated with gym class and backyards—at least in North America—would cause such a scandal in the 2012 London Olympic Games.
The sports world was stunned to hear that four women’s badminton pairs, two South Korean, one Chinese, and one Indonesian pair, were thrown out of Olympic competition for fixing matches in order to gain an easier draw in the knockout stage.
As a result of the mass disqualification Canadian pair Alex Bruce and Michelle Li, who lost all of their previous matches, advanced into the quarterfinals where they defeated another benefited pair from Australia. Bruce/Li, as they were affectionately called, then lost to number five seeded Japan in the semifinals and then the bronze medal match to a Russian pair who also qualified because of the scandal. Bruce/Li became the first badminton players from Canada to play for an Olympic medal.
“Shuttlegate” failed to advance the Olympic ideal of competing at the highest level and it will no doubt scar the sport for years to come. But some blame should be placed at the sport’s governing body, the Badminton World Federation (BWF), for allowing such shrewd game theory.
Since its admission into the Olympic Games in 1992, badminton had used solely a single-elimination knockout format, similar to tennis, to determine an Olympic champion. Top teams were seeded while the rest were allocated to their places in the tournament via a random draw. For the 2012 Games, the BWF decided to institute pool play where teams/players were divided into pools and played each other in a round-robin. In doubles, the top two teams in each pool advanced to the knockout stage. This was done, according to the BWF, to allow lesser-ranked nations and players to play more matches than in the previous one-and-done format.
The problem was, however, how teams were placed in the knockout brackets. Places in the brackets were determined by their pool and their rank, meaning that teams knew ahead of time who they would be playing, and also who to avoid.
This issue is not unique to badminton: in the same Olympics, Spain and Brazil played each other in men’s basketball knowing that the winner would face USA earlier in the knockout stage. Spain lost to Brazil, but later denied any tanking, blaming poor play on the loss. The Swedish men’s hockey team in the 2006 Olympics was accused of purposely losing to Slovakia in order to face Switzerland in the quarterfinals instead of Canada.
Many countries and competitors have now spoken out against the format used in London, and a return to the single-elimination format would be the best option since it does not reward failure. This does not mean, however, that the round-robin format should be abandoned either.
The problem was not the pool play itself, but rather the criteria of how playoff teams were placed in the bracket. If the current format was retained, which is what the BWF wants to do, it could be altered so that pool winners would be seeded while other competitors would be randomly drawn into different places in the bracket. This is the system currently used in Olympic beach volleyball.
While the current format has been second-guessed since the scandal, there were a few other oddities surrounding the Olympic badminton tournaments in London. Unlike other racquet sports, there were more players in women’s singles than in men’s singles and players were divided into sixteen pools of either two or three players where the pool winners advanced to the knockout stage. Some players had to play an elimination match while most were guaranteed two. Also, despite a rule where every continent must be represented, there were no mixed doubles teams from Africa or Oceania.
Despite the scandal, badminton will remain in the Olympics. The BWF will have four years to make whatever changes needed to its competition format. Change must be served, whether they shuttle back to the old format or not.