Strategy vs. Sportsmanship

Not a week into the Olympics and we hit a scandal. Women’s badminton doubles from China, Korea and Indonesia were disqualified for losing on purpose. Normally I don’t really post about sports, since it’s not something I’m too invested in, but I am worried that this will advance/confirm the idea of “Asians are cheaters” (another thing being  Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen being suspected of doping), or that “those communists are privileging the group over the individual again.”

Wang and Yu played to lose so that they could avoid playing another Chinese team, and were disqualified for being “unsportsmanlike.” I argue that the idea of what being “a sportsman” constitutes is a little problematic because it’s based on the idea of individual effort leading to individual success*, and actually that’s at odds with the structure of the Olympics. The Olympics is not entirely about individual achievement. Athletes are representing their country, and the medal count each day is a list of countries and their medals, not a list of people who have won medals. In addition, the nomenclature of these athlete-representatives is “Team [country name],” meaning that each athlete represents a team, which in turn represents their country. Allowing one team of a country to lose to give another team of the same country a chance to win is based on a consideration of how best to make the country pull forward, which seems to be in line with what the Olympics are implicitly emphasizing. Also, success aside, while doing one’s best is important, I don’t think this principle trumps the principle of self-sacrifice and putting others before yourself.

The pressure to punish someone was heavy, and I the motives for punishing someone ought to be examined. First of all, the audience response from thousands of spectators makes inaction impossible. However, I feel like the majority of the audience has at least an inkling of “I object to this because I’m not getting my money’s worth” in addition to the more noble “I object to this because it’s not sportsmanlike,” as evidenced by articles saying that there will be no refunds. The punishments to the athletes, in this case, caves to a kind of consumer logic. Frankly I think this proves that the Olympics are totally already unsportsmanlike – each athlete has trained extremely hard and endured hardships, yes, but the Olympics themselves have become first and foremost an entertainment spectacle. If what I just said was false, then the Paralympics ought to draw more supporters, yet for most people the Olympics take precedence because it’s just more exciting to watch. Frankly, I think some of the spectators who were angry ought to disqualify themselves as fans. Also, the athletes were the ones performing and the ones who were visible, not the referees or the organizers who set up the round robin system, and I think that’s partially why they ended up being targeted the hardest in the media, essentially being placed on the sacrificial altar because it’s harder to punish anyone else.

I actually hope this controversy doesn’t die down soon. At the basics, the competition system needs to be reconsidered, and more broadly, I think the Olympic organizers, spectators, referees, athletes and governing bodies all reconsider what the Olympics are really about, and if it’s to include the world, to include different cultural definitions of winning and success.



* not to mention, individual effort based on individual success, from a starting point presumed to be equal.  Except there’s a long road before the starting line and it’s hard to see if that’s equal or not. Apparently part of the 70-minute waiting time Shin Lam, the South Korean athlete fencing in epee, had to endure as the judges debated their decision was because her referee didn’t have enough money on hand to submit an appeal.


2 thoughts on “Strategy vs. Sportsmanship

  1. Hi Shannon,

    Good to see you at the blog again. Somehow in my travels in the last few weeks, I’ve missed the Olympics and Olympics news, but your post has me thinking. You address a multitude of issues that could be discussed separately but the sticking point, I think, is this: You say, ” if it’s to include the world, to include different cultural definitions of winning and success.” Is that even possible? We are back to worldview issues again. Two views of winning and success that are mutually exclusive cannot both be applied simultaneously. How do we choose which is correct? There has got to be an ultimate definition-maker.

    I hope we cross paths somewhere again!

    • Hello Martha! Thank you very much for the input. I guess I sounded sort of extreme in this posting – I actually don’t know what to think about it. Anyway, sorry about the late response – the move to California is sucking up a lot of time. I hope your travels have been going well and your family has been doing well too!

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