Frantic back and forth rallies, diving retrievals and winning net smashes are all part of badminton’s fast-paced modern era. But entertainment was thrust aside for pure farce and endless error-strewn points on the sport’s darkest day at the London 2012 Olympics, when four women’s doubles pairs were embroiled in manipulating matches and thrown out of the tournament.
The ‘play-to-lose’ scandal rocked the sport, became undoubtedly one of the biggest controversies at the London Games and cast badminton into the limelight for all the wrong reasons.
As several newspapers across the globe put it, the bizarre saga involving eight women's doubles players “put the bad in badminton”. The spectacle, reported the New York Times, saw “some of the world’s best badminton players hit some of the sport’s worst shots”.
How did it unravel?
For many countries with no badminton history, the doubles fiasco in this usually genteel ‘garden barbecue sport’ was easy fodder for newspapers to ridicule. Not so for the countries involved in this night to forget, China, Indonesia and South Korea all having rich, national pedigree in the sport.
For the first time in Olympic badminton, the 2012 tournament featured four groups of four in the doubles, with the top two advancing to the quarter-finals. But after starting the competition with knockout rounds in previous Olympics, it was clear that there could be potential problems come Games time.
You can watch the match and the moment the referee urges the players to start playing properly (at 16:15) below.
The shenanigans at a packed Wembley Arena had first started to take shape earlier in the day when a Chinese pair lost to a Danish team, meaning the top two Chinese pairings would not meet each other in the final as planned, unless they tanked their last group game.
However, no one could have foreseen how the four women's doubles pairs – the gold medal favourites from China, plus two pairings from South Korea and one from Indonesia – contrived to take advantage of the new format with such blatant attempts to lose their matches in order to manipulate the last eight draw to their advantage.
With other courts in action, eyes were soon on China's world champions, Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli, and South Korean duo Jung Kyung-eun and Kim Ha-na, as the quartet took turns at serving into the net, missing routine shots to concede points and hitting a plethora of easy returns astray.
Spectators were soon in tune with what was unfolding and began to boo and jeer loudly. The head match referee, Torsten Berg of Norway, had his work cut out as he was forced onto court and was seen hand gesturing to the players, presumably in a bid for them to compete to the best of their abilities.
His remonstrations came to no avail. Electric rallies were firmly off the agenda as the South Korean pair duly won 21-14, 21-11 in 23 minutes in a match that saw the longest rally in the first game recorded at just four strokes.
Shortly after organisers said they would investigate the incident, further controversy ensued in a match between South Korea duo Ha Jung-eun and Kim Min-jung and Indonesian pair Greysia Polii and Meiliana Jauhari, with both opponents seemingly wanting to lose.
Back came referee Berg as he brandished the black card (disqualification), before protests followed and play, as well as the theatrics, was allowed to continue. The South Koreans won in three forgettable sets.
What happened next?
“The Chinese started this. They did it first”, said South Korea's coach Sung Han-kook. One Chinese player said they were simply aiming to preserve energy ahead of the knockouts.
As the investigation took shape, Thomas Lund, Secretary-General of the Badminton World Federation, admitted: “Frankly, it hasn’t taken that long”.
Officials charged the four pairs with ‘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’ and disqualified the eight players. Their places were taken by pairs who finished third and fourth in the qualifying groups.
The last words were succinctly put by David Mercer, the BBC commentator. “Tonight has left me with a very nasty taste in my mouth”, he said. “What I've seen tonight was not sport. It was a disgrace. Good night.”
Moral issue of ‘losing’
Prior to the Games, online publication Badzine had revealed that around 20 per cent of all-Chinese matches played in major tournaments in the year before the London Olympics had been walkovers or not completed.
While these matches weren’t investigated, the London 2012 controversy surfaced for the sheer manner of soft faults and mounting mistakes. Would the outcome have been the same if there had been actual sweat-induced rallies, the teams having exerted themselves?
Nevertheless, some observers believed that what unfolded that night was all part of sport. There were comparisons to swimmers easing up before the wall, knowing they would qualify. Or teams changing entire line-ups in other sports to save energy.
Or even the case in the football competition, a few days later at London 2012, when Japan’s women’s team coach told his players to refrain from scoring in their final group game so the team would be better placed in the knockouts. FIFA found insufficient grounds to discipline the Japanese.
China won women’s doubles gold – and all five badminton events at London 2012. The 2016 Olympic format subsequently changed, with a second draw taking place after the preliminary rounds for all losing pairs to determine who would face who in the knockout rounds.
The four South Koreans kicked out of the Games later won appeals against their two-year suspension for alleged match-rigging, with their bans reduced to six months. The Korean coaches who were originally handed lifetime bans, appealed and had their bans reduced to two years.
Two of the disgraced South Koreans, Kim Ha-na and Jung Kyung-eun, made the Olympic team for the Rio Olympics. ‘I've moved on and grown up,’ Kim said. ‘Although I still have bad memories, I will never make the same mistake again.’
China's Yu Yang immediately quit the sport, writing on her blog that organisers were ‘unforgivable’ dream-wreckers. ‘Goodbye my beloved badminton,’ she added. She then changed her mind and partnered up again with Wang, who was also banned in London, as they won the 2013 World Championships.