Skip to content

Philosophy and the Badminton Scandal

I was emailed by a journalist yesterday from Bloomberg for a comment on the Badminton expulsion scandal. Several teams have been expelled for deliberately losing to gain better places in the draw to increase their chances of winning.

Here is the story that came out in Bloomberg

Here is the actual quote I sent the journalist:

“The players were ejected for violating the Players’ Code of Conduct, Sections 4.5 and 4.6, for “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.”

However, many competitors fail for various psychological reasons to use their best efforts to win a match. Having a temper tantrum is hardly using your best efforts. And since when is strategy abusive to sport. If there is a problem, then the rules for the draw should be changed. This is typical of the puritanical moralism that is infecting sport. First it was a war on performance enhancement because it was against the spirit of sport – nonsense, it is the spirit of sport. Now we see the same moralists trying to define a good sport and enforce some anachronistic account of the spirit of sport. Boo them by all means, but don’t disqualify them if they have not broken clear rules. This kind of subjective code of conduct belongs to Victorian times. It is absurd to have a rule that you have to try to win in competitive sport. It’s like having a law that you have to try to love someone in a marriage. Of course you should do it, but it’s absurd to have rules that require it. You can get dropped from the team, or booed, or divorced, for not trying hard enough – but this is not the place for these kinds of rules or laws.”

One thing I did not write was that there is another philosophical diagnosis of this scandal. That is, attachment on the part of Olympic officials to the so-called “intention-foresight” distinction that also grounds the famous Catholic Doctrine of Double Effect. According to the intention-foresight distinction, there is a moral distinction between the effects of our actions that we intend and those that we foresee, but don’t directly intend.

In the most famous philosophical example of the distinction, there is supposedly a moral difference between strategic bombing in war and terror bombing. Now most people would think there is a moral difference. But the philosophical version of the case is this:

Terror bombing: Country A deliberately drops a nuclear bomb on a civilian population which is certain to the end the war and kills 100, 000 people.

Strategic bombing: Country B considers dropping a nuclear bomb on a nuclear facility which is being developed in the heart of a civilian population. Destruction of the facility is certain to end the war and certain to kill 100 000 people. Country B deliberately drops the bomb.

In both cases, it is certain before the action is performed that 100 000 people will die. However, in A, the deaths of the civilians are intended. In B, they are foreseen, but not intended. What is intended is the destruction of the nuclear facility.

Many people claim that what country A does is worse than what country B does because A intends the deaths of civilians while B does not.

I disagree. What both countries intend is the end of the war and both know that their action to achieve this will kill 100, 000 people. There is a huge literature on the intention-foresight distinction but many top philosophers argue we should reject it (though some still defend it).

What has this got to do with badminton? Clearly what the Koreans and Chinese did was to intentionally increase their chances of losing. Their direct intention was to try to lose. But many athletes do things which foreseeably increase their chances of losing. I gave the example in my quote of temper tantrums. You might think that these are beyond control but anger management might be able to curb this. I understand Andy Murray has tried to modify is psychological dispositions to increase his chances of winning, with good effect.

Another famous example I remember was Alberto Tomba the great skier. I think it was when he won 1 Gold and 1 Silver at Albertville in 1992 that he said,

“I used to have a wild time with three women until 5 a.m., but I am getting older. In the Olympic Village here, I will live it up with five women, but only until 3 a.m.”

Staying up until 3am with 5 women will foreseeably and reliably reduce the performance of anyone in a top sporting competition (though “La Bomba” might deny this).

Should La Bomba Tomba have been disqualified for not taking the Olympics seriously enough? Should he have been stripped of his medals for doing things that foreseeably reduced his chances of winning a gold medal? Was he guilty of “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.”

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. But that distinction is now widely discredited.

Smith is duck shooting with Jones. Jones inadvertently walks in front of Smith’s barrel. Smith sees him but continues his shot anyway. He doesn’t intend to kill Jones, though he foresees he will. He just wants to get a prize duck.

In law, this is not murder but manslaughter. But ethically, is it any different to murder?

If we reject the intention-foresight distinction, the Olympic Committee should not have ejected the East Asian teams from the Badminton.

Share on

12 Comment on this post

  1. I’m not entirely sure what you would like to see from this Julian. Removal of the law altogether? Or simply a refinement in the law?

    Your account above seems to be that losing a match, in the name of strategy, is a valid piece of conduct and not detrimental to the spirit of the game (“And since when is strategy abusive to sport”). Ergo, the rule on using one’s ‘best efforts’ fails to fully encapsulate that element of the sport and in fact undermines it. Could it be fair to say an element of your argument is that this rule actually undermines the spirit of the sport as you see it?

    Personally, I think you’ll be hard pushed to persuade people that – in this instance of badminton – not being competitive in a match (to some degree) in the name of ‘strategy’ didn’t undermine the spirit of the sport. For a start, nobody pays to see someone lose at sport, apart from the opposition of course 😉 Scoring a blatant own goal in football to lose the game would kill any spirit in it. There are, however, strategy’s in football that could be considered detrimental but are allowed; ‘Parking the bus’ for example, where a team puts all its men behind the ball in order to push for a draw, rather than the win. Interpretations of the sport seem necessary.

    However, you have also said that not only does best efforts not meet this interpretation of the spirit of sport – but it’s also unattainable and the law therefore unapplicable. It does not need a philosopher to inform the public that certain actions by sports people – such as temper tantrums – do not meet, to the strictest definition, the law of “using one’s best efforts to win a match” but it also doesn’t justify throwing them out of the competition. The interpretation of the law in this way is made not only made by the people, coaches, sports persons etc. (who can’t possibly have an ‘anachronistic’ understanding of the spirit of the sport) but also by the IOC, who aren’t compelled to throw people out all the time for temper tantrums. I can only presume your business about ‘victorians’ and such was journalistic guff?

    The fact that this law undergoes interpretations doesn’t make it invalid. By no means could you have any law in sport without interpretation. I’ve mentioned above how even the nature of ‘strategy’ has certain interpretations and applications.

    As I see it, I think it would be far more detrimental to the game to throw out the law completely. How else could we uphold ANY spirit of the games? Players must enter a contract of some sort before they play the games, even if the conditions need interpreting. As for redefining the law; Under what terms? I think that under any terms it would lead us back to whether or not your opinion of the badminton team was in the spirit of the sport. I’m inclined to disagree with that opinion.

  2. Anthony Drinkwater

    Wouldn’t another philosophical approach be to ask whether it would be possible to imagine a game where both players/teams were trying to lose? Whether the game be football, chess, road cycle racing or fencing, there wouldn’t be much of a game for the players, nor for spectators to enjoy.
    And this last point is important. If the games took place in private then you might be right that the exclusion for “not trying to win” was wrong. However, the Olympics are a spectator sport and it is just as unacceptable for players not to try to win as it would be for singers to under-perform before tonight’s audience in order to save their voices for tomorrow (because tomorrow the Queen will be there, or an influential critic, or their mum…). Besides, Badminton (and other) spectators don’t like being taken for a ride : they paid to see a competition, not a pretence.

    1. Road cycle racing is in fact a case in point. Yes, you need teams to be vying for an overall victory, but noone would expect a tour de france hopeful or his nearest rival to spend energy to chase down a breakaway group in order to win a stage if noone in it was a threat to the overall victory. In fact, Lance Armstrong was lambasted for doing exactly that when he chased a breakaway including Simonei in 2003 and accused of putting himself ahead of the spirit of sport. So even though in that case a number of Americans may have travelled over to France to see that particular stage and spent a lot of money and time to do so, most people would say that is irrelevant, and the spirit of that sport allows or even demands for the losing of some stages to make safe an overall victory. The spirit of sport is a nebulous concept.

      I would say that in any tournament you should be able to play each game with the goal of winning the overall tournament. So our swimmers are congratulated for swimming a heat in a way that allows them to get to the lane they want, or to conserve energy for a later swim, even if they don’t come first, second, or third- it is reaching the final that counts. Applied to Badminton in its current form would make this round robin of the Badminton rather boring (though maybe comic), but that is really a fault in the game design rather than a crime against the spirit of sport. So if the organisers changed the format to a knock out competition that would solve the problem and alow players to legitimately try to win the overall tournament, which, if there is a definition of the spirit of sport that is stable, is probably it.

  3. This is a very interesting post. I would like to thank the author for bringing in this thought provoking angle into the discussion. If you would indulge me, I would like to offer my two cents worth.

    Firstly, I think that we have to split hairs with regards to what we consider to be ‘winning.’ Much of your analysis, as well as most analyses that I have read, presumes that winning refers directly to the winning of a medal. In unpacking this concept of ‘winning,’ we would have to ask some fundamental questions. Firstly, what does ‘winning’ entail? Is it defined solely by the acquisition of a medal? Or by the number of games won? Or perhaps ‘winning’ is defined by the display of athletic excellence and/or sportsmanship? Can ‘winning’ also be defined by the exceeding of ‘personal bests’? Secondly, who are the people that ‘win?’ Is it the players themselves? The audience? The country?

    It is only in doing so that we can establish some fundamental ethical foundation to make judgments on these players. It is my personal belief that to win in any sporting event, and especially at the olympics, the criteria for winning lies not in the final result, but in the athlete’s show of sportsmanship and determination to best him/herself through the encouragement of their peers. For this reason, I feel that to reduce the concept of winning to the acquisition of a medal cheapens the spirit of the games. More importantly, it also serve cheats the audience of the true display of human excellence, it cheats their opponents of an opportunity to flourish under competition and it cheats themselves from truly attaining their personal best.

    Secondly, your current discussion on ‘intention-foresight’ also seem to tie in with another fundamental philosophical debate on ‘ends’ and ‘means.’ It appears to me that if we were to accept your conclusion that the committee should not have sanctioned the players, we would have (indirectly perhaps) justified the use of any means to achieve desired ends. I have always thought of this incident as akin to how some athletes consume drugs in order to improve performance. These athletes take these drugs because they foresee a given advantage for them during the game. Their intention is to improve their chances through illegitimate means and therefore are not allowed. But supposed these athletes take some drugs to allow them to underperform temporarily in a friendly game so as to lessen the expectation of their opponents in the main league. Should this be allowed simply because their actions are detrimental to their chances of winning? Or do we find the action of modifying performance with drugs unethical in any form?

  4. I would also like to hear your thoughts on understanding this incident through the idea of “the prisoner’s dilemma.”
    (I am not very well versed in this so do correct me if I’m wrong)

    From the players point of view,
    Their aim is to win all the games.

    If they lose to some opponents they will meet ‘weaker’ opponents.
    However, this is dependent on ‘stronger’ opponents playing their best in all the games.

    If they win all their games, they will meet ‘stronger’ opponents.
    However, this is dependent on ‘stronger’ opponents playing their best in all the games.

    If they win all the games, and the ‘stronger’ opponents lose some games,
    they will still meet ‘weaker’ opponents.

    If both the players and ‘stronger’ opponents try to strategically lose some games,
    they will meet each other.

    In this case, there is no observable dominating strategy unless they are able to factor in their opponents tendency to play their best.
    They are able to do so because all players mutually agree to play their best.
    Thus, if they fail to uphold this agreement and exploit the other players’ strategy,
    they should rightfully be sanctioned to ensure that all players play their best at all times.

  5. Tonight I watched Sir Chis Hoy, Philip Hindes and Jason Kenny win gold and set a new world record in the Team Sprint on the cycling track. It was a great race. After the race, Philip Hindes was asked why he fell at the start of one of the qualifying heats. He was the lead off man for Great Britain and the race against Germany had had to be restarted. He said on BBC that he did it intentionally, on purpose, because he had had a bad start, and wanted to start again.

    I presume this is within the rules since they were not disqualified. However, it is arguably “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.” Why should it be permissible for Hindes to intentionally fall over so that he can get a better start but impermissible for the East Asian badminton teams to lose a match to get a better draw?

    I am not saying that the sprint team should have been disqualified. They apparently used the rules to their advantage but did not exert the best effort after a bad start. And perhaps they are governed by a different “Code of Conduct.” It was eventually a great race and fitting final. But likewise, the badminton teams should not have been disqualified.

  6. An intentional false start and deliberately losing a game is rather different. A ‘bad start’ is called when there in an unequal playing field among competitors at the start point. Thus, an athlete who finds him/herself in that position may intentionally cause a false start to ensure fair play. On the other hand, deliberately losing a game is to ignore the terms of fair competition. I think it is a red herring to suggest that a false start is similar to “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.”

    Also, an intentional false start is done to secure ‘fair means’ of competition and should not be conflated with the end result of winning a medal, which appears to be the definition for winning in this example.

    Moreover, as I have raised in the previous comments, a rational choice perspective would indicate why this particular behavior is sanctioned while an intentional false start is not.

  7. “I disagree. What both countries intend is the end of the war and both know that their action to achieve this will kill 100, 000 people. There is a huge literature on the intention-foresight distinction but many top philosophers argue we should reject it (though some still defend it).”

    There may well be huge literature but this term and the scenario given are new to me, so please forgiven me if I duplicate some common points from that literature when observing that the significant distinction here is the potential later significance of the nuclear facility. If it is known or suspected to be a military operation, and that makes a significant difference to the later safety of other populations, then – while the civilian casualties are abhorrent and could arguably justify withholding a strike anyway – there’s clearly more justification than without the base. All factors contribute to an holistic assessment of the morality of the action.

    By deliberately ignoring the significance of a nuclear base you leave yourself free to disagree with a sound judgement….

    Now, there may be better scenarios throwing light on this intention-foresight distinction, or better arguments around this scenario, but you certainly aren’t doing your overall argument any favours by introducing it so implausibly as some kind of accepted moral reference while furnishing a blatantly flawed analysis considering only the deaths and end of the immediate war….

  8. The more I think about this, I think you are absolutely right & in many other sports this would be considered a reasonable strategy.

    Hard for me to understand why a fall would lead to a restart in cycling, as I understand false starts, it seems the purpose is to negate any advantage gained by the one who “jumps” early rather than being called because someone puts them self at a disadvantage by intentionally falling? I must admit that I am not at all knowledgeable about the sport of cycling, so I can’t eliminate the possibility that this was an acceptable strategic ploy.

    Would not giving “just enough” of an effort in, say, a qualifying heat for swimming, be essentially the same thing as losing in the initial round robin play? You are giving a good enough effort to know you will advance, but strategically you may enhance the possibility of getting a more favorable seeding… exactly what the DQ’ed teams were attempting.

    As far as an intentional false start as being “to secure ‘fair means’ of competition”, I honestly don’t understand what Joshua means by that. I am not saying that to be combative at all,but to me a false start call is simply to give the offender another chance to participate, something of a “no harm, no foul” attitude on the first offense & yes it is considered an offense, a second false start does result in a disqualification in many events such as track & speed skating.

  9. I find this whole issue fascinating. I teach a class in finance and accounting and ethics is always on our mind. This will be a great example and I still am unsure what the answer is to this Gordian Knot
    All of these are excellent examples of game play- tactics that optimize your chance to win. That is the role of the game.
    But there are rules. Rules for everyone to preserve fairness. In the examples the rules were flouted.
    The British Cycling Team gamed the system . They fell behind at the start and intentionally used the rules (falling) to get an another chance – a restart. Admitting same is folly- they should’ve been disqualified.
    I’m surprised that any cycling team that has a bad start doesn’t use this tactic. I would love to see the stats on the frequency this occurence poor start/fall.
    The Badminton Teams used a different tactic to get their teams the best opportunity for a 1/2 finish. They knew that if they won they would be in Bracket A vs Bracket B and that if they lost tehy would not meet their countrymen until the final?
    This is gamesmanship. Stats that seemed to come out of the woodwork show clearly that this happens frequently in this sport. Teams play strategically.
    In chess one gives up a rook to gain an advantage and win the game.
    Finally one last sport example. What about the runners and swimmers that only give ‘enough effort’ to advance to the next round?
    Is it against the spirit of sport to strive to win your heat or get to the final but to save your ‘best’ for the final?
    I ask finally- How many world or olympic records have been set in the preliminary heats of any sport? The goal is to get to the next round.
    So, is this unethical or poor sportsmanship to try to win in the end but to give up a bit now?

  10. First, as pointed out by the players themselves and by many others, a simple knock-out system would have prevented all this happening in the first place.

    Falling in the cycling is a greyer area, and certainly the faller has a chance, I would have thought, of being injured, which might act as a deterrent for some. But here, too,
    the rules could be changed to stop this happening again, i.e. make the race continue regardless of falls, as it does in athletics.

    But where a situation like this arises, it is incumbent on the players to at least pretend to put on a good show (as happens in TV wrestling). The fact that the spectators was all baying surely swayed the badminton
    judge to issue the DQ. And I think they were right in the admittedly poorly-planned situation. They surely thought about disqualification as a deterrent for future such acts, not just as a judgment on the day.

    One of the greyest areas occurs in the group stages of tournaments like the football World Cup, but here too the players are usually good enough showmen or women to continue to put on a reasonable display. Even time-wasting is penalised pretty well these days. But I would also point out that any kind of play-acting in sport could also have a longer-term negative effect on the one who does it. I don’t think people will think the better of Philip Hindes for deliberately falling (though they might admire his naive honesty in admitting it!).

    So, sportsmen and women, give us a good show at all times. If not, the punishment should be strong enough to deter further occurrences, just as, dare I say it, no further H-bombs have ever been dropped since 1945.

Comments are closed.