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The Olympic Badminton Scandal

August 6, 2012

In my previous post about the Olympics, I said I wasn’t planning on talking about them, but on the other hand, I didn’t say that I definitely wouldn’t either. This is a good thing, because it turns out that there is something I’d like to talk about: badminton.

This past week, a “huge scandal” rocked the Olympics and the world of badminton. The best summary of that I could saw was from Slate, which describes not just what happened, but some of the motivations behind those events. Essentially, because of the structure of the qualifying round, several of the teams found that they had already clinched spots in the finals with a match remaining to play. In a bit of an athletic spin on The Producers, these teams found that they could throw their last qualifying match in order to tweak the seed order of the final round to their advantage. The teams that were found guilty of this were then ejected from the competition on account the basis that their activities were “clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport”, essentially, the provision for cheating.

But losing a game on purpose is kind of the opposite of cheating. If the players have an incentive to lose, that’s really the fault of the game (or in this case, tournament) designer, and we can take a look to see why this is.

If you’ll indulge me a moment, a typical tournament seeding system is designed to delay the matches between the highest rated seeds as long as possible, and to give the easiest schedule to the best team. So, in a 16 team seed, the teams are matched up 1-16, 2-15, 3-14, etc.In the second round, the winner of 1-16 (presumably 1) faces the winner of 8-9 (presumably 8), and the winner of 2-15 faces the winner of 7-10, etc. So, if the seeds accurately reflect the skill level of the teams, there’s always an advantage to being seeded higher: you play easier teams until the final round. If you’re at all confused, it’s easiest just to look at the wiki link for a diagram.

So, back to badminton. In a little more detail, what happened is this: this year’s badminton tournament rules specify that a qualifying round be played in order to determine seeding order for the final set of single-elimination rounds. Near the end of the qualifying rounds, a surprise loss by a high ranked Chinese team dropped their seed number so that they would most likely face another Chinese team before the finals. If the two teams met in the finals, they could guarantee that each received one medal: gold or silver. However, with the expected seeding, they would play each other in an earlier round, so one would knock out the other too early to receive a medal.

As an illustrative example, if you refer to the wikipedia diagram, assume that the teams were initially ranked 1st and 3rd. The unexpected loss might have dropped the 1st ranked team into 6th. Now, the teams would find themselves playing against each other in the second round, rather than the finals. Foreseeing this, the team with a game remaining attempted to intentionally throw their match, therefore relegating themselves even further down in the rankings, and ensuring that they would not be seeded against the other Chinese team. So, for example, maybe the 3rd ranked team would end up ranked 9th if they lost their last match. This would get them well out of the way of their country-men until the later rounds.

If this had been all that happened, they could have quietly thrown the match, a few people would have raised eyebrows at having 2 unexpected upsets in the qualifying rounds, and everybody would have gone about their business. However, a South Korean team, either in a similar situation, or perhaps seeing how the Chinese teams would benefit from losing, also tried to lose the match. Furthermore, both teams were equally inept or equally uncaring about hiding the fact that they were trying to lose. So, a strange inverted game was created where both teams were flailing about, trying to trick their opponent into scoring a point. The Chinese team succeeded at failing, but ultimately both teams were removed from the tournament.

Later, a different South Korean team faced an Indonesian team where the winner would have to face the Chinese No. 1 ranked team (the one that initially experienced an unexpected loss) in the semifinals. Both similarly tried to throw the match, both were similarly inept, and both were similarly removed from the tournament.

Note that there are two slightly different cases here. The Indonesian team and their South Korean opponents were both playing only for themselves. If the seed rankings are accurate, you always want to seed as high as possible in order to achieve an easier line-up of opponents. This is true across the whole set of rankings: even when fighting between 14th and 15th place, there is still an advantage to be had by creeping up the rankings ladder. However, because the actual No. 1 ranked team had managed to lose in the qualifying round (thus losing their #1 seed), they essentially became a booby trap: suddenly, you would rather face the #4 seed instead of the #6 seed, even though #6 is supposedly worse: the rankings no longer reflect the quality of the teams.

The Chinese team however, were potentially playing a slightly more complex gambit. They were trying to manipulate the  bracket so that the other Chinese team would progress farther through the tournament. (I’m actually not sure which Chinese team was expected to win the match between the two. For the sake of this example, I’m assuming that the team that threw the match was the better of the two).

In my personal calculus of sportsmanlike conduct, I see the former as a much less serious offense than  the latter. It’s one thing to maximize your team’s chances of proceeding through the tournament using only rules set forth within the tournament. It’s quite another to collude with another team. The basic structure of all sports assume an adversarial relationship between opponents, and so undermining this is far more harmful to the sport itself. It’s also less predictable. Within the confines of the tournament, I wouldn’t be surprised that a team threw a match to improve their position in a later round. It’s unusual, but it’s the kind of thing that a game designer might be able to foresee and accommodate for. Collusion between teams relies on relationships that were established outside the “magic circle” of the tournament.

So, how would we avoid this problem in the future? Slate, again, has an in-depth article describing some ways to address the problem within the tournament elimination rules. Their approach is, in my mind, somewhat too complicated and relies on eliminating the classic seeding system entirely by giving the top half of teams choice of their opponents, in descending order of rank. In most cases, you’d end up with the same 1-16, 2-15, etc. assignment, but it would account for edge cases like this where individual teams might believe the true rankings are not reflective of the seed rankings. I think I’d prefer to try to stick with traditional seeding (for convenience sake), and just try to make sure that the seeds are more accurately reflective of the actual skill rankings. The best way to do this is to increase the sample size, perhaps by including rankings from a source external to the Olympics themselves. This might require some messy estimate, but remember: to avoid this type of problem, it isn’t actually necessary to capture the real skill rankings so much as the perceived skill rankings held by the players. This retains the basic seed structure without the need for once-every-four-years special rules explanations.

If that fails, there’s something even simpler: if a team wants to register a forfeit in a non-elimination round, let them. If there’s no complaint from their opponent, then the match is forfeit, you get one loss, one win, and everybody’s happy. If both teams forfeit, have them play, and let the winning team be credited the loss. That way, you still make sure everybody is playing their best, and if nothing else, it will give people something to talk about.


From → News / Links

One Comment
  1. okcrow permalink

    Like the conclusion ” If both teams forfeit, have them play, and let the winning team be credited the loss. That way, you still make sure everybody is playing their best, and if nothing else, it will give people something to talk about.” 🙂

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