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Kovacevic: Badminton serves tough lesson

| Friday, Aug. 3, 2012, 12:37 a.m.
China's Yu Yang, left, and Wang Xiaoli talk while playing against Jung Kyun-eun and Kim Ha-na, of South Korea, in a women's doubles badminton match at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 31, 2012, in London. (AP)
China's Yu Yang, left, and Wang Xiaoli talk at the end of the women's doubles badminton match against Jung Kyun-eun and Kim Ha-na, of South Korea, at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 31, 2012, in London. World doubles champions Wang and Yu, and their South Korean opponents were booed loudly at the Olympics on Tuesday for appearing to try and lose their group match to earn an easier draw. (AP)
World doubles champions Yu Yang, left, and Wang Xiaoli, of China, watch as the shuttlecock hits the net during their women's doubles badminton match against South Korea's Jung Kyung-eun and Kim Ha-na, unseen, at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 31, 2012, in London. Wang and Yu and their South Korean opponents were booed loudly at the Olympics on Tuesday for appearing to try and lose their group match in Wembley Arena to earn an easier draw. (AP)

LONDON — Amid all the fanfare of these Olympics and Great Britain's glowing-so-far Games, the world of international sport is embroiled in, of all things, a badminton controversy.

Yeah, that badminton.

Four women's doubles teams — two from South Korea, one each from China and Indonesia — were charged with throwing matches and sent home Thursday by their national federations at the urging of the International Olympic Committee. Credentials were revoked, outbound flights booked, the whole deal.

They're now the Black Sox of Badminton.

"The players failed to demonstrate the fighting spirit of the national team," Chinese coach Li Yongbo told the news agency Xinhua. "It's me to blame."

One of the Chinese players, Yu Yang, posted on her blog that she's retiring from the sport.

How sad.

And how wrong.

Not so much what these coaches and athletes did. But how they were thrown under the doubledecker bus by the IOC, the Badminton World Federation and the national federations.

Let's start by clearing this up: These coaches and players didn't throw matches because of any sort of fix or betting scandal. They did so because of the BWF's round-robin format for the tournament's first round. By finishing in a certain place, they'd be assured of facing lesser opponents in the second round. In some cases, that meant losing now was the best path to winning later.

Stop right there.

Any of this ringing a bell back home in Pittsburgh?

Remember how the Penguins went into the final couple weeks of the NHL's regular season knowing that, if they finished fourth or fifth in the Eastern Conference, they were sure to face the Flyers?

Remember, too, how attractive sixth place looked by comparison?

If the Penguins had dropped to sixth, they'd have faced the No. 3 Panthers, a much weaker opponent and better matchup, in the first round. And if they'd have performed as expected against Florida, it might have been the Penguins who reached the Stanley Cup Final rather than the Devils, who did as a No. 6 seed.

You could hope that the Penguins would drop. You could see how it would have helped.

You might even have forgiven them if they chose to rest their best players in the final week, which, by the way, the NFL's playoff-bound teams do every winter.

But no, of course, you'd never want Marc-Andre Fleury willfully leaking goals. It would be horribly wrong, just as it was for these badminton athletes to blatantly swat volleys out of bounds or into the net.

That's where the suspended coaches and players are culpable.

But to place all the fault on that group without considering the organizers who set up a clearly flawed system, that's unfair.

This wasn't just one team that found losing to its advantage. It was three. That's systemic.

Where's the repercussion for the BWF for allowing the throwing of matches to become an accepted part of its culture?

Where's the scorn for the IOC for failing to recognize this?

Maybe the IOC had reason to avoid the topic. To be sure, it's a slippery slope.

Ever seen track cycling?

It's not really a race as much as a game of cat-and-mouse. The cyclists pedal on a slanted oval, and they seldom go all-out. They often slow to a crawl, even let the opponent get ahead.

Are those cyclists giving their all, per the "Olympic spirit" cited so often in this badminton case?

How about preliminary heats in swimming and track, where racers openly acknowledge holding back?

Look, I understand these are wholly different. But they back the larger point: The badminton players absolutely were trying to win gold. This just happened to be the best path.

The IOC, quite characteristically, is trying to wash its hands and move on.

"The Games are about good sporting experience, and that's what we're encouraging," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. "When that doesn't happen, we need to take action."

Right, but so far, that action's been limited to fingering a few individuals and the national federations. That's how the IOC pawned off the death of the Georgian luger two years ago in Vancouver.

The issue that must be addressed, as with the 1919 Black Sox and with - yeah, I'll say it - the 1983-84 Penguins tanking to draft Mario Lemieux, is to make the game cheat-proof. Find the flaws in the rules and wipe them out.

Baseball viciously punished those Sox, even banished hits king Pete Rose for gambling. The NHL eventually instituted a draft lottery, following the NBA's lead. Baseball and football would be smart to follow suit.

It's incumbent on the BWF to fix its tournament format, even if that turns into single elimination.

Badminton means next to nothing in any of our lives, but a powerful lesson for all sports can emerge.

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