If You’re Going to Cheat, Pick the Right Sport

Two Chinese badminton doubles players were kicked out of the Olympic games for cheating last Tuesday. Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang, playing doubles for China, just couldn’t stop hitting the shuttlecock into the net, hitting it too far, not chasing the shuttlecock when it went off to the right or left, hitting it out of bounds. The audience booed them when the game ended. They’d lost to South Korea in straight sets, 21-14 and 21-11. And the next morning, they were called before the Badminton World Federation and disqualified for “not using one’s best efforts to win a match.” After that, the International Olympics Committee met and said they would honor the disqualification. And after that, the Chinese Olympic Team announced it was opening an investigation.

There was also a ruling at that time that those who had bought tickets to watch this important game would not have their money refunded. Buyer beware was the prevailing official Olympic thinking.

I think at one time or another, all of us have played badminton. It’s not easy to cheat at it and get away with it. It’s not like boxing where almost nobody would know if you cheated or not. In boxing, all you’d have to do is lower your guard just an inch for a second and you’d get clocked. Who would know? And it’s not like baseball where the pitch whizzes in at 95 miles an hour and batters, even the best of them, get fooled by it and lunge wildly at it, missing by a foot. How can you tell the difference between trying and not trying in those circumstances?

It’s also not like football where you can slam into an opponent a little less hard than you might otherwise so a runner scores a touchdown. Who would notice? And it’s not like basketball where, just by shifting your focus an eighth of an inch, you can make a three point attempt at the buzzer bounce off the rim instead of going through swish.

Game over.

Indeed, many of us have tried to cheat at badminton, deliberately, when we play small children. Who has not seen a father deliberately unable to get to the shuttlecock when it’s hit from the other side by his 9 year old son.

“Oooh, can’t get it. Your point.”

Everybody smiles. The son jumps up and down.

They’ve got a lot of weird sports at the Olympics. Curling is one. Taekwondo is another. And badminton is a third. I watched the action at an Olympic badminton match on TV the other night.

The shuttlecock goes back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. It’s pretty easy to see how all these people really good at it were really good at it. If they suddenly got really bad at it, it would stand out like a sore thumb.

I think you can divide Olympic sports into these two categories—one where it’s a bad idea to cheat and another where it’s a good idea if the money is right or the outcome gains you an advantage.

Here’s an example of some odd sport where you wouldn’t want to cheat. Let’s say that, things being what they are, door slamming was an Olympic sport. You’d have these big muscular athletes who could slam the door really loud. Then you’d have less muscular athletes who slammed doors not so loud. If everybody paid good money to go see the world champion door slammer, and when they got there he just slammed it a lot softer than he was famous for, everybody would know right away. And they’d boo and shout obscenities at him and wave their arms.

That’s why I think it a mistake to try to cheat at badminton.

And this reminds me of another story. Some time ago, a lawyer friend of mine was just starting out with a large New York City law firm. After he’d been there about three months, he announced that, because he had won a spot on the United States Olympic team, he’d have to take a leave of absence so he could compete in the Games, which were being held that year in Mexico City.

Soon, his colleagues could see him on TV at the opening ceremony, walking in with his other team members, smiling and waving to the crowd. He was wearing a white shirt and pants and had on a straw hat, which was the uniform for all the American athletes that year at the opening ceremonies.

What had happened was this. He and some of his friends, drinking at a bar in Manhattan one evening the year before, were talking about the upcoming Olympic games in Mexico, when one of them said, gee, they’ve got all these new sports I have an idea. His idea was that they would find one of these new sports that nobody in America played, form a “team,” and then petition the U.S. Olympic Committee to allow them to play in it.

There were six of them up for this. They did a little research and found that one of these new sports was Kara, a sort of Mexican paddle ball, put into the games probably at the request of the Mexicans. Making inquiries, they learned America was not fielding a team for it.


They formed a corporation (they were lawyers), named themselves the New York Sombreros, and filled out an application to represent America. Four would play. Two would be alternates if the four got injured or something. Then they read up on the rules of Kara, had themselves photographed in matching shorts and shirts with the name NY Sombreros on it, and, on the last day you could apply to the U. S. Olympic team, faxed in the application.

Much of what turned out to be a one week trip to Mexico City that year involved a lot of waiting around watching the other sports and then playing one match, against Ecuador, which they lost, 21-0. Then they went home.

Cheating? Nobody in the crowd knew enough about the game to think about it one way or another. That Ecuador team was really something though.

And no, my friend told me, they hadn’t cheated. They tried their damndest. They just couldn’t get a point. You could look it up.

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