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Why group play isn’t to blame for badminton woes

The match-throwing in Olympic badminton was neither inevitable nor defensible. Here’s why.

Of the many opinions flying about in the aftermath of the BWF’s decision to disqualify eight Olympians, including the top seeds, a recurring theme is to point the finger at the BWF for introducing a new competition format. In previous Olympics, the competition has been straight-elimination. In 2012, badminton used group play.  Exactly the same format is used in football, and similar formats are used in most Olympic team sports, but that doesn’t seem to have dawned on critics.

How group play’s supposed to work
Let’s look at how the format works. The sixteen teams are divided into four groups (A, B, C and D), so that one of each of the top four seeds is in each group. The winner of each group plays the runner-up of another group in the quarter-finals:

A1 vs C2 Semi-final 1 Final
B1 vs D2
C1 vs A2 Semi-final 2
D1 vs B2

The first seed is put in group A and the second seed in group D. That way, in theory, assuming higher seeds beat lower seeds, the first seed should finish group play as A1, beat C2 in the quarters and beat fourth-seed B1 in the semis. The second seed should emerge as D1, beat B2 in the quarters and third-seed C1 in the semis. That would see the top two seeds face each other in the final. So the “ideal” knockout progression, with seeds in square brackets, looks like this:

A1 [1] vs C2 A1 [1] vs B1 [4] A1 [1] vs D1 [2]
B1 [4] vs D2
C1 [3] vs A2 C1 [3] vs D1 [2]
D1 [2] vs B2

There’s no theoretical incentive to lose a match, because finishing second in your group means facing the top team from another group in the quarter-finals. This, you might notice, is contrary to how the four loss-seeking teams in the Olympics felt.

When the Danes pulled an upset
So what went “wrong” in the Olympics? The unseeded Danish pair pulled an upset victory over the Chinese second seeds, 22–20 21–12, to top group D. So the Danes (Juhl/Pedersen) were D1 and the Chinese second seeds (Tian/Zhao) D2.

The last group A and C matches came after group D. By this time, it was clear which two teams in each of groups A and C would advance to the quarters. The last matches would decide only who would face who, i.e. which way around A1 and A2 would be (and C1/C2).  So we have:

A1 [theoretically 1]
C2
Semi-final 1 Final
B1 Cheng/Chien (TPE)
D2 Tian/Zhao [2] (CHN)
C1 [theoretically 3]
A2
Semi-final 2
D1 Juhl/Pedersen (DEN)
B2 Fujii/Kakiiwa [4] (JPN)

The group A decider was first. A1 would (if they beat C2 in the quarters) see the second seeds in the semis. A2, on the other hand, would (assuming the third seeds win group C) face only the third and fourth seeds (group B also had an upset) before the final. So, contrary to theory, A2 has an apparently easier route to the final than A1.

But wait a minute. This entire analysis assumes that the seeding is the authoritative measure of ability. Specifically, it assumes that the second seeds would be harder to beat than the Danish pair that topped group D—and beat the second seeds themselves! This is the reason the “the system made them do it” argument is dubious. If the second seeds are hard, why is the team that beat them any easier?

The only way that would work is if the second seeds had wanted to lose to the Danes before. But that match took place before any placings were apparent, i.e. when it still made sense for the second seeds to want to win.

So in terms of self-interest, it didn’t make much sense to want to come second in group A. Of course, once the first seeds did throw the game, it then made sense to want to come second in group C to avoid them—hence the South Korea–Indonesia race to the bottom. But that was only there because of the group A farce.

The altruism factor
It’s possible there wasn’t just self-interest at play. The top and second seeds are both from China. The top seeds may well have preferred a semi-final against the team that beat the second seeds (i.e. the Danes) than their compatriot second seeds. Assuming the top seeds would beat the second seeds, this wouldn’t affect who wins gold. But it would affect who wins silver.

Consider what that means. In a competition where there is no second place, there is no concept of altruism: you have to beat everyone at some point, whether it’s now or later doesn’t matter. But if you’re going for gold and you want someone else to get silver, then you might try to set up your friends to lose to you at the very end.

Those who defend the disqualified athletes as “playing strategically” should bear that in mind.  For the Chinese top seeds, there was no self-interested logic in their actions.  The draw manipulation had to be about securing a gold-silver for China.  At this point, no competition structure except straight-elimination can function as intended.  All competition formats have to start from an assumption that everyone wants the best for themselves only.  By going for the loss, the top seeds were undermining that format.  That’s what makes their actions so unsportsmanlike.  (And that’s ignoring the disrespect for the sport, the spectators and the Olympics.)

The problem with straight-elimination
So the importance of second- and third-places messes things up. But just as it brings compatriotism into play, it also highlights the problem with straight-elimination. If the team worthy of silver happens to draw the best team in the first or second round, they won’t get that silver. Of course, we use seeding to try to prevent that awkwardness. But whether a third- or fourth-seed who upsets the second seed gets silver or bronze still depends almost solely on how the draw’s arranged.

It’s easy, then, to see why the BWF might have wanted to look at other draw formats. Incidentally, group play is also used in football, hockey, handball, basketball and water polo. Given that those sports aren’t ridden with deliberate losses—at least not as blatantly—it seems unfair to blame the system so quickly. The difference is that none of those sports allow more than one team per country. But we shouldn’t need to revert to single-elimination or one-team-per-country in order to ward off draw manipulation for compatriots. Asking athletes to fight only for themselves is neither a tall nor complicated ask.

Either way, “I wanted to help my countrywomen” isn’t an excuse and shouldn’t be one. Nor is, “But they started it!” As sad as it is, and as much as I can sympathise with the athletes, all four pairs who tried (successfully or unsuccessfully) to throw their matches deserved to be disqualified. The BWF did the right thing to save its sport from further embarrassment.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. lpyon #

    Thanks for this write-up— I appreciate the time you took to break down some of the game theory behind the scenario. Aside from the ethical issues at play, this helps illuminate some of the logical quandaries as well.

    4 August 2012

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