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The Philosophy of Bad Badminton: Another Look

Julian Savulescu brings an interesting and characteristically uncompromising philosophical perspective today to the Badminton scandal in which four pairs were disqualified from the Olympics for intending to lose their matches in order to obtain a preferred draw in the next round. The players were ejected for violating parts of the Players’ Code of Conduct that is set by the governing body of the sport: the Badminton World Federation (BWF). In particular, they were found to have violated sections 4.5 and 4.16 of the Code, which respectively prohibit “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.”

Savulescu argues that the players should not have been disqualified, and that the rules for the draw should be changed. He is right the rules for the draw should be changed: they should be designed so that winning a match always confers on the players some advantage in the tournament, or at least never a disadvantage. Why not, for example, simply let the most successful teams choose first who they will face in the next round? One questionable feature of this week’s events is that the badly formulated rules for the format of the draw were instituted by the BWF. So the BWF, acting as legislator, judge and jury on the conduct of the players, itself had a vested interest in shifting the blame for the fiasco of non-competitive games onto the players themselves.

Still, it is reasonable to ask whether it would have been right for a properly impartial judging body to disqualify the players in this case. Savulescu’s post suggests, as far as I can see, four arguments against:

A) The players were using a strategy to win the tournament, and logically, a strategy cannot be abusive or detrimental to the sport.
B) The rules are not clear.
C) The rules are absurd.
D) The rules depend on a distinction between intending and foreseeing which is philosophically unsustainable.

So let’s assess these four arguments.

A) Can a strategy never be abusive or detrimental to a sport? To decide, we first need to think about what it means to be “abusive or detrimental to the sport”, and that means thinking about the value of professional badminton and what the possible threats are to its value. It might be argued that a really high quality, competitive game of badminton has intrinsic value irrespective of any of its effects. But less controversially, professional badminton also has various kinds of instrumental value. One very important instrumental value is the pleasure that spectators get from watching competitive matches. And the strategy of losing matches intentionally can clearly be detrimental to the production of that value.
For good measure, here are some other strategies that would be clearly abusive or detrimental to Olympic sports: surreptitiously exchanging your heavy shot in the shot put for a lighter one that you can launch much further; taking an off-course short cut during the marathon; poisoning your opponent’s food at the Olympic Village the night before the match; agreeing with your opponent in advance to draw the match so that you each get enough points to be sure to qualify for the next round.

B) The objection that the rules are not clear might take two forms: (i) The rules were not clear about whether the alleged infringement in this case was actually an infringement, or (ii) The rules would not be clear about all possible cases of infringement, and rules that are not clear about all possible applications of them are unacceptable.
Let’s start with the second claim. Obviously, it is a virtue of rules if they are clear and easy to apply in every case. But it would be hopelessly idealistic to think that the rules of sports can always be like this. Vague boundaries are an ineliminable feature or many of our concepts, including many that must be invoked in formulating sports rules. For example, consider the rule of diving that says a diver’s “body should be straight and vertical, or nearly vertical”, at the moment of entry. There are at least three vague concepts here: “straight”, “moment of entry”, and “nearly vertical”. But the points that a diver loses as a result of being judged to be just barely on the wrong side of those vague boundaries can make the difference between winning and losing an Olympic medal. It’s a shame that there are vague cases of conformity to rules, but they are an unfornate fact of life. So we can’t dismiss rules just because their violation is sometimes, or might sometimes be, subject to interpretation.
Let’s consider, then, the alternative claim: that there was no clear infringement in this case. For the sake of argument, I’ll concede that we could have a reasonable disagreement about whether the badminton players infringed rule 4.16 of their Code. But given that the players intended to lose their matches, it is undeniable that they clearly infringed rule 4.5, which requires that players use “best efforts to win a match”. Note that the rule is about making efforts to win each individual match, not just the overall tournament. So it’s blatantly obvious that it was violated.

C) Savulesu thinks it absurd to have a rule requiring that players use “best efforts to win a match”. Why think this? Let’s set aside the worry that whether someone is guilty of not using “best efforts” might sometimes be vague and subject to interpretation, as I’ve just shown that that kind of objection to a rule is unreasonable. What about the different worry that the rule might be foolishly applied, for example to censure La Bomba Tomba for his pre-match partying in the Olympic Village? This objection reminds me of something John Stuart Mill said in defence of his utilitarian standard of morality, which said that we ought when we act to promote the general happiness. Some objected that there was not time, before every action, to calculate the effects all the options would have on the general happiness. Mill replied as follows: “There is no difficulty in proving any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it.” The lesson is that we must use common sense in interpreting rules. A third reason why the rule might be thought absurd is that it plays no role in enhancing the sport. A rule that badminton players must wear straw hats with any odd number of feathers in them would be absurd in this way. But clearly, the rule that players make best efforts to win each match *does* enhance the sport, by making all the matches competitive and interesting for spectators and players alike.

D) A lengthier argument for why rule 4.5 is absurd is sketched in Savulescu’s blog post, the heart of it is this:

It would be absurd to eject someone for doing something that foreseeably reduces their chances of winning. So, the only way to defend ejecting someone for intentionally reducing their chances of winning is to appeal to the intention-foresight distinction [which says that whether you intend a particular consequence of your action or whether you merely foresee it as a side-effect of something else you’re aiming at may make a moral difference]. But that distinction is now widely discredited.

Savulescu overeggs the pudding when he claims that appeal to the intention-foresight distinction is “widely discredited”. It plays a central role in the moral theory of Immanuel Kant, one of the greatest and still most influential moral philosophers. But I need not argue from authority as it is easy to see the distinction’s significance. The mere fact that there are some cases in which the distinction does not matter morally – like Savulescu’s example of duck hunters Smith and Dick Cheney Jones – does not show that the absence of other cases in which the distinction does matter morally. Imagine the following case:

Dan is a dentist who is carrying out a painful tooth extraction. He confides to his assistant: “I don’t care at all about the patient’s health, though I foresee that my doing this extraction will maintain it; I only intend to cause a lot of pain to this woman.”

Even those philosophers who reject the intention-foresight distinction as relevant to the moral permissibility of Dan’s carrying out the tooth extraction will, unless insane, accept that Dan’s intentions here reflect very badly on his moral character. And the dental board (not to mention the patients) might reasonably prefer a code of conduct that, so far as possible, disqualifies people like Dan from performing dentistry.
Whether you agree or not that Dan is a bad man, I don’t really need to defend any version of the intention-foresight distinction here, because Savulescu’s first premise is false. We can agree that it would indeed be absurd to eject Tomba from the Olympics for his penchant for partying in the Olympic Village, even if it foreseeably reduced his chances of winning. But there are other cases in which it would not be at all absurd to eject someone for doing something that merely foreseeably reduces their chances of winning, without their having any intention of losing. Suppose that the pairs in the Badminton matches had not intended to lose their games, but merely foresaw that they would as a side-effect of their pursuing other things. For example, perhaps they intended to engage in some kind of “bad badminton” performance art project, foreseeing that they would lose matches that they felt didn’t matter anyway. Perhaps they intended to simply enjoy lying around basking in the sun on a certain corner of the court, and did so, merely foreseeing that they would lose as a result. None of this makes any difference to the disappointed spectators who had paid for expensive tickets, or undoes the harm to the reputation of badminton as a good sport to take part in, or to go and watch. The rules should disqualify players in cases like these for not trying hard enough, even when they do not intend to lose their matches. Therefore, whether the intention-foresight distinction exists or not is irrelevant here. Players can and should be disqualified for not making best efforts to win.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. Speaking after winning the men’s sprint final with Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny, Philip Hindes told reporters: “We were saying if we have a bad start we need to crash to get a restart.

    “I just crashed, I did it on purpose to get a restart, just to have the fastest ride.

    “I did it. So it was all planned, really.”

    French track team chief Isabelle Gautheron told AFP: “It’s pretty obvious from the video pictures that he crashed to get the restart.

    “There is nothing in the rules to sanction such an action. But now that he’s come out and said it, I hope the authorities consider making a change to the rules.”

    – from

    Lucky they don’t have the same Code of Conduct, apparently, as the badminton players.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Julian. It’s not obvious to me that the rules the badminton players were found to have violated would have ruled out what Hindes did. He seems to have successfully exploited a loophole in the cycling rules, which allow for a restart in the event of a “mishap”. It was extraordinary that he (at fist) forthrightly admitted this! It wouldn’t seem a bad idea to rewrite those rules, if this kind of thing becomes disruptive and reduces everyone’s enjoyment of the sport.

      Everyone knows, no one more than the players, that different sports have different rules and codes of conduct. So I don’t think it’s unfair that the badminton players were disqualified even if Hindes got away with what he did.

  2. I really enjoyed this article! It certainly provokes the issue of rules and enforcement. While English has a latin-like quality of being exceptionally clear, people have a tendency to wish for the starry skies of idealistic justice. “never cheat, always try your best, represent yourself with the utmost integrity, you can report if your rights have been violated, there is justice for every inkling of sin.” This simply is a slavishly simplistic interpretation of the world. In reality people are struggling to get through the challenges and sometimes trying less hard is a good thing. The badminton players were right in that losing, or accepting ‘loser-hood’ can be a way to challenge perpetual ‘improvement’ and is possibly a salvation factor for the sport and the people. Yes, they are using a possibly corrupting strategy, but by trying to win people exploit the definitions of a limited and breakable physical and organic structure. The olympics focus on mechanically urging improvement and progress but it is healthy in life to lose and can even lead one to a bigger win in the future. The badminton players were in my mind, not wrong to do what they did, but if there are such substantial and predictable rewards for losing when one could have one that it is a machiavellian like strategy–then the authorities should take a much closer look at how orders are made to match players.

  3. I believe more consideration should be given to the distinction between “trying to win a match” and “trying to win a tournament”. You could argue that what these teams were trying to do was to maximise their chances of winning the tournament, no doubt a goal of higher priority than winning a single match (the North Korean team could testify to this, but I am sure other teams were pressured hard to bring home medals as well). The rules as they are, combined with the system of draws result in a penalty for the more able team. In my mind, this is detrimental to the sport and should be identified as the problem here, with the players’ actions being secondary to this. I find it hard to blame the players for breaking the rules. But I did not pay to go and see them. 🙂

  4. I really enjoyed both articles, but I find myself swayed by the second, if only because there is a value to the concept of “sportsmanship” that the first article seems to minimize. I would say the Olympics are an arena where that idea needs to be placed first and foremost, or the event turns into dueling undetectable steroid competitions. (I recognize many would say this is already the case, but I believe that most of us reject that as acceptable.) The Karate Kid comes to mind, where the villain instructs one of his competitors in the semi-final to intentionally commit a foul to disable the hero, thus earning a disqualification but ensuring the evil karate school’s victory. I have a friend who mentioned that certain schools she faced in martial arts competitions were infamous for employing this strategy. That badminton has rules, even if imperfect, intended to demonize that sort of play, then I am on the side of those who value and seek to improve these efforts, as opposed to those who give up on the endeavor. I think that the players in this scandal recognized that their strategy was unacceptable – why else did they go through the motions of playing at all? Why not simply serve every shuttlecock into the ground in front of them? I believe that their attempt to make it look like an actual game at all is a big part of showing the inherent bad intentions of their behavior, and justifies their expulsion.

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