If you’re going to throw a badminton match, you have to be less obvious about it

It may be possible based on your location to view what NBC euphemistically calls "highlights" from the women's badminton doubles match between China's Yu Yang/Wang Xiaoli and South Korea's Jung Kyung Eun/Kim Ha Na. The serves go laughably into the net, there is barely any attempt to chase down shots, and returns go far out of bounds. If this is top-level badminton, I think I could be a world champion.

Both sides had secured their advance into the next round, and Wired explained why both teams decided that a strategic loss would be advantageous. Julie VanDusky-Allen provides a game-theoretical analysis of the situation. (Even if you randomize the seeds in the knockout portion of the tournament, you can still get into a situation where a team in the round-robin portion of the tournament may decide that it is advantageous to lose a match on purpose.¹)

Partway into the match, an official warns both teams that if they do not make an effort to win, the teams will both be disqualified. That served to improve the quality of play only marginally.

Okay, they need to study soccer or American professional basketball, where intentionally losing is a long-standing tradition: You need to make it look like you're trying, or people are going to figure you out. For example, play normally most of the time, but then have a mental lapse and "accidentally" make an error that concedes a point.

At least fake an injury. That'll let you start playing badly with plausibility.

(Although these techniques for throwing a match subtly probably don't work if your opponent is also trying to lose.)

Since the attempt to get both sides to play to win didn't seem to help, perhaps the officials should have announced, "We have decided to assist in motivating the two sides by declaring that the loser of the match will be disqualified from the tournament."

Now they have something to play for.

¹ Consider a four-team group with teams A, B, C, and D. In round 1, A defeats B 5–1 and C defeats D 2–1. In round 2, A defeats D 5–1 and B defeats C 2–1. At this point, A is guaranteed advancement as long as it doesn't lose to C by more than 8 points. If A defeats C, then B will advance. But A may decide that it prefers to play against C in the knockout portion of the tournament. In that case, it can intentionally lose to C in the third round by 4 points (leaving a comfortable margin of error), and as long as B doesn't win by more than 7 points, A will get its wish: C will advance.

Comments (37)
  1. John says:

    I'm sorry, but this is just dumb.  If you don't want people to tank games then don't set up the tournament in a manner which encourages tanking games.  The idea of "putting on a good show" is even dumber because THEY ARE STILL TANKING.  So what you're really saying is that you would rather be lied to than accept reality.

    [I'm not saying that's what I want. I'm saying "If you've decided that you're going to do something unethical, it's in your own self-interest to do it in a manner that is not easily detectable." -Raymond]
  2. Engywuck says:

    @John: The olympic oath is (for the athletes):

    "In the name of all the competitors I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams."

    Please show me the "sportsmanship", the "glory of the sport" or even the "honor" in intentionally losing a match. Methinks they should disqualify for obvious strategic losing more often. If you have to "fake the trying" and get caught even more so, but good faking still has the "risk" of accidentally winning because it can't be obvious you intend to lose.

    Yes, that would have been a good idea at Gijon 1982, too. (Yes, I'm german and think the "Nichtangriffspakt" was a disgrace)

  3. Jack says:

    My favourite example of this was from the soccer 'Shell Cup' in 1994, where, due to a strangeness in the rules, both teams tried to score own goals.

    Wikipedia explains it a little bit here: en.wikipedia.org/…/Barbados_v_Grenada_(1994)

    There is also a video around the Internet, however it doesn't really do it justice.

  4. Chris B says:

    Couldn't agree more with John. If they want the matches to be competitive, there has to be a reward for winning, and not for losing. These teams were disqualified for doing the thing that was best for them in the long term (better chance to win the tournament) even though it was [arguably] detrimental in the short term (losing the match, poor level of play for attendees). That is the system's fault, not the player's.

    Every major American sport I know of has this same problem at the end of the season when the teams with the worst records stop trying so they can get the first draft pick. The NBA uses a lottery system to discourage that. The NFL awards home-field advantage in the playoffs to the teams with the best records to encourage them to continue playing. Those Olympians were playing to the system. If you want better play, devise a better system.

  5. Both teams were disqualified in the end, after the match.

    In this case, I don't think it actually made things easier as both teams were trying to lose. It's as hard to lose against someone who is trying to lose as it is to win against someone who is trying to win.

    Both teams are trying to "win" the same game; it just isn't the game/rules that people assumed it was. :)

    There's still an argument that it cheats the paying audience, and the case where one team wants to win and the other wants to lose… But it seems like poor game design to allow situations like this to arise. It should never be an advantage to lose (or at least a known advantage before the fact) and you should never have to just how hard someone is trying. (Sometimes it's obvious but how do you prove someone wasn't just having a bad day, in general? It's not possible without introducing bad judgements.)

    [It's surprisingly difficult to come up with a tournament model that is not vulnerable to this situation. I think elimination tournaments are the only examples, but they have their own problems (like having a higher luck component). -Raymond]
  6. John says:

    @Engywuck: I don't care what the oath is, I'm concerned with reality.  People are looking to win medals, and in some instances tanking a game may be beneficial in that endeavor.  If you want to kick out tankers that's fine, but it doesn't solve the problem; the lesson is to become better at tanking.  What I'm saying is that it's better for everyone to fix the tournament to make tanking impossible.

  7. Chris Long says:

    The goal of these 'competitors' was to win the gold medal, not the individual match.  The rules have to be carefully designed such that the only way to progress towards winning the event is to win the individual matches.  That wasn't done here, and maybe it's not possible.

    A former British badminton player (Gail Emms, https://twitter.com/gailemms) expressed her view that such a result was inevitable when the organisers selected the 'group-stage -> knockout-stage' design, though it's quite a common arrangement in other sports (not in badminton, apparently) and it's not clear to me why badminton should be more at risk of this kind of stragegic nonsense than other sports.

  8. Bob says:

    If I remember correctly, the Olympic rules for badminton were changed after the last Summer Olympic Games, changing the game from single elimination to the current rules, setting up this silly situation.

  9. Random832 says:

    [It's surprisingly difficult to come up with a tournament model that is not vulnerable to this situation. I think elimination tournaments are the only examples, but they have their own problems (like having a higher luck component). -Raymond]

    @Chris Long "The rules have to be carefully designed such that the only way to progress towards winning the event is to win the individual matches.  That wasn't done here, and maybe it's not possible."

    Everyone plays the same number of games, whoever has the most wins (or most total points – which could encourage poor play to extend time depending on overtime rules, but at least still incentivizes trying to score) wins. Can someone explain to me why that wouldn't work? [An odd number of competitors would mean everyone has to play everyone, but you could combine it with elimination rounds.]

    [That creates a lot of meaningless matches where both competitors are completely out of the running. They would have no incentive to play well. -Raymond]
  10. Adrian Ratnapala says:

    I was going to go all anti-official here, but @Random832@ is right: the tournament rules apparently were sensible but an upset in another group fouled it up.

    Probably the best way to deal with it is to not have a fixed draw.  Instead you have some rule of defining seding order in each round and then give the top sede the first choice of opponent, the second top sede gets second pick etc.  That way the system adapts to any weird upsets.

  11. Steve says:

    One mitigation (following on from the Gijon 1982 affair) – not sure it would have helped in this case – is to play the last round of group games simultaneously.

  12. Random832 says:

    "the tournament rules apparently were sensible but an upset in another group fouled it up."

    A) I have no idea how this has anything to do with what I said and B) if an upset in another group can foul things up, the rules aren't sensible.

  13. Random832 says:

    I wonder if things couldn't be arranged to never place two teams against each other where "both sides had secured their advance into the next round" – or maybe to never have anyone "secured" at all until winning their last game of the current round.

  14. Kujo says:

    Random832: Brainstorming here…

    In order to remove the luck component, you'd have to play all pairs, which could mean a lot of matches!

    If you go by wins, you're likely to have a lot of ties… hell, it's possible not to even eliminate anyone!  

    Another possibility that arises happens later in the pairings, when someone who has won enough that they're still in the running plays against someone who can't possibly medal.  The loser may throw the match for some other benefit (like helping a rival team lose). That's especially damaging in a point-counting system, since the loser is giving up a potentially large number of points instead of "just" one win.

  15. John says:

    Reminds me of this last Pro Bowl, it got so bad they had to drown out the Booing from the stands.

  16. @John says:

    they didn't even ATTEMPT to drown out the booing in the badminton

  17. Rob says:

    Adrian, you can't just give the top team choice because the top team in the other group also would have choice and what happens if they don't agree?

    The simplest solution has been used quite successfully in soccer tournament for years: Simultaneous matches.

    Also, give the winning team the option of accepting the win. So on the off-chance this does happen, it'd still be an entertaining game (imagine two teams playing hard for the win so that they can force the other team to take the win LOL).

  18. Matt says:


    >> "[It's surprisingly difficult to come up with a tournament model that is not vulnerable to this situation. I think elimination tournaments are the only examples, but they have their own problems (like having a higher luck component). -Raymond]"

    The reason they don't use elimination tournaments is not because of a "luck" component – otherwise they'd have to abolish final matches in general (since a single final match is an elimination tournament of length 1).

    The reason for it is that in the Olympics there is not only a race to get Gold, but also a race to get Bronze.

    Assume for instance that we construct some arbitrary 100% skill-based tournament such that A always beats B if A is "better". Now suppose that we have the following lineup in order of skill:

    A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H

    Let's assume the initial round selection is AB, CD, EF, GH


    A plays B, A wins,

    C plays D, C wins,

    E plays F, E wins

    G plays H, G wins.


    A plays C, A wins

    E plays G, E wins


    A plays E, A wins.

    Bronze-medal play-off:

    C plays G, C wins.

    In this tournament, A wins Gold after a really easy final, E wins Silver despite being rubbish and Bronze is won by C, despite the fact that C is better than E. B doesn't get anything because he was eliminated by A in the first round, despite the fact that he's better than E and C.

    Round-robin is an attempt to fix this problem, but as you rightly point out, it just has different problems.

  19. Douglas says:

    I don't understand why they couldn't simply forfeit. Both teams want to lose? Fine, both teams forfeit and get a loss. No one has to watch a pointless match.

  20. waleri says:

    I guess "one country – one team" would improve the situation

  21. Adam V says:

    @Matt: you can get around that with seeding – at that point, A & B being the top two seeds means they don't meet until the finals.

    @Douglas: people have paid for tickets – they have to have something to watch. (Although you can make the case that paying money to watch two teams both try to lose is worse.)

    @waleri: "one country-one-team" works fine when it's a large team (i.e., soccer, basketball, men's indoor volleyball) or when there's large equipment/transportation costs per team (i.e., rowing sports) but otherwise there's not really an improvement. And if the top 3-4 teams were all from one country, it takes a lot away from it if you feel like "the real gold medal match" was months ago in that one country's playoffs.

    My question is, why not introduce a rule saying that the organizers have the right to move a team up or down a limited number of places to ensure the top two teams from any given country will be on opposite sides of the bracket? Of course, then you're upsetting those teams that get moved up to face a harder team than they otherwise would have…

  22. Gabe says:

    I like Rob's idea of allowing the victor to decline the win. Much like in American football, where a team can decide to accept the results of the opponent being penalized or decline it, the winner of a match can decide to decline the tournament points for winning.

    That may be trickier, though, in a situation like Barbados vs. Grenada where merely winning is not sufficient. Barbados actually had to win by 2, otherwise Grenada effectively "won" by advancing to the next round. Once Barbados was up 2-1 they had incentive to give Grenada an extra goal to get into overtime (where a single goal was worth 2 points), while Grenada had the incentive to give Barbados a goal to prevent OT (because losing by a single point was advantageous). The result was that once the game was tied, Barbados had to defend BOTH goals to keep Grenada from advancing in the tournament!

    [Even declining the win still means that you have teams manipulating results in order to face what they believe to be less difficult competition, which sort of subverts the point of seeding. -Raymond]
  23. You can get three clear leaders (gold, silver, bronze) while avoiding the seeding paradox by making a big Swiss out of it: en.wikipedia.org/…/Swiss-system_tournament

    You still have the potential problem of collusion between countries (kingmaking), where a country that is already out of the running intentionally loses to a country they like.

    Getting a little crazier:

    Have a single-elimination tournament.  Winner gets gold.

    Have another single-elimination tournament with everybody but the country that won gold.  Winner gets silver.

    Have a third single-elimination tournament with everybody but the previous two winners.  Winner gets bronze.

  24. > what do you say to the people who bought tickets to them?

    You say: "Sorry, the match was cancelled, but you can see any of {ABC, DEF, … XYZ} events for free instead." This works a lot better if you tell them upfront (when they buy the tickets) that sometimes scheduled matches don't actually take place.

    (Self-nitpick: 26 is not divisible by 3.)

    [So you have to intentionally undersell tickets so there's room for the people whose matches were cancelled. "I had front-row seats, but my match was cancelled and they moved me to nosebleed seats in some other match. -Raymond]
  25. Matt says:


    Your solution is great – apart from you've tripled the number of games that everyone (apart from the gold and silver winners) have to play. And in the final two thirds of the matches, the gold has already been won – so nobody will bother to watch.

  26. Kevin says:

    Maurits: The number of actual games in a single-elimination tournament with N entrants is always N-1, unless there are ties, disqualifications, or other weirdnesses.  That's because you need to eliminate N-1 people to get a single winner.  So the total number of games in your solution is exactly 19+18+17=54, unless something weird happens and you don't eliminate one person per game every time.

  27. Alan says:

    I'm with David Sirlin http://www.sirlin.net/…/playing-to-win-in-badminton.html The tournament is fundamentally poorly designed.  The ultimate goal is to win the tournament, and the teams involved made a rational decision to throw the game in pursuit of that goal.  Given the stakes, appealing to sportsmanship and fair play is as effective as praying to Santa Claus.  The people who should be ashamed are the people who designed the tournament.

  28. Chris B says:

    [That creates a lot of meaningless matches where both competitors are completely out of the running. They would have no incentive to play well. -Raymond]

    Few people are likely to care about the outcome of such matches. If you cut the matches or disqualified the teams, it wouldn't have any real impact on the rest of the tournament. As it stands now, the committee has cut two teams from the competition that were better than their competitors, and would probably generate more revenue through the remainder of the tournament. Seems they cut off their nose to spite their face.

    I also think that people are more likely to put forward an attempt to win to prevent themselves from coming in dead last.  As an example, the Detroit Lions from a few years ago that lost all 16 games played, did continue trying to win simply because they didn't want to go down as the worst football team ever.

    @Matt…Correct me if I am wrong, but doesn't hockey have a gold medal game where the winner is awarded gold, and the loser is awarded silver, and then another game where the winner is awarded bronze, and the loser nothing? Also, I think a better initial selection would be: AH, BG, CF, DE. I *believe* that would result in a better outcome for the tournament (but I'm too lazy to work it out myself).

    [Sorry if this double posts, I think I took too long writing it.]

    [If you cut the meaningless matches, what do you say to the people who bought tickets to them? "I flew here all the way from Japan and I bought tickets to three fourth-round matches, and they were all cancelled! Now I'm going to end up flying home without seeing any events at all!" -Raymond]
  29. cheong00 says:

    @Maurits: And if Swiss system is used but not full rounds are served, it'd still be subject to gaming…

    When I was playing Chinese Chess, we have been using this system, with 8 rounds of matches for 64 players. When there's a tie in number of wins, the position is judged by "the number of wins from opponents". If my team has one of the best player, and in early match I know I'll battle with a best player from another school, when I decide that I don't have chance of winning afterall, I could intentionally lose all my game in order to pull down "the number of wins from opponents" point for that competitor.

  30. meh says:

    @JustSomeGuy: Maybe pitch your idea in front of the IOC and see if you get raised or turned thumbs.

  31. My triple-elimination suggestion was mostly a joke, but since you bring up the number of games…

    @Matt suppose for the sake of argument there are 20 countries.

    A round-robin tournament will have 19 rounds, with 19 * 20 / 2 = 190 total games.

    A single-elimination tournament will have a qualifying round where the eight lowest-seeded teams face off against each other (4 games, 4 winners), then a Sweet Sixteen round, an Elite Eight round, a Final Four round, and the championship.  Total: 19 games.  The champion will play either four or five games, depending on whether they were in a qualifier.

    So even if you have three single-elimination tournaments, there will still be fewer games (< 19 * 3 = 57 as compared to 190) and fewer rounds (5 * 3 = 15 as compared to 19.)

  32. JustSomeGuy says:

    The only way to solve this problem is to have sudden death tournaments. And I don't mean that piddling little "you lose, you're out of the running" rule.

    I mean real sudden death, elimination, termination cessation of life, pining for the fjords and all that sort of stuff. That would give competitors a REAL incentive to do much better and it may well make this whole boring spectacle enjoyable for the viewers.

    And, as a side benefit, the old athletes that are waning in their skills will be much more likely to step aside for youth (or they'll be forced to step aside in the next games by virtue of the fact that they're too busy pushing up daisies).

    Man, how do I go about getting on the IOC? I think I'm onto something here.

    *end humour*

  33. Matt says:

    @meh, @JustSomeGuy.

    Just to make it more interesting, if the IOC don't like your idea when you pitch it, they get to kill you.

  34. It's like walls and ladders in reverse!

  35. Neil says:

    Surely the obvious solution in the affected match was to force both teams to play for each other's country. Then they would want to win in order for the other country to meet the harder opposition.

  36. ThomasX says:

    One wonders what Microsoft is trying to lose with the Metro-UI…

  37. xpclient says:

    @ThomasX, awesome analogy. :)

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