Badminton Falls Down

Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters

Few in the United States watch Olympic badminton. Fewer still are likely to watch after the ridiculous play in preliminary games. (Maybe a few will try to watch, just as a few slow down to watch the results of a car accident on the side of the road.) Four of the best teams in the world were kicked out of the Olympics for intentionally trying to lose matches and gain a competitive advantage. Clearly the competition was poorly structured if there was an incentive to lose.

This year the Olympics switched to a round-robin tournament, replacing the one-and-done format, so teams compete in three round-robin games before seeding them in medal brackets. There are four pools of four teams. The top two teams in each pool qualify for the quarterfinals and the bottom two spend the rest of the competition in the Olympic village.

China’s Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang won their first two matches and secured a spot in quarterfinal. Their final match against a South Korean team would determine first and second place in Pool A.

The first complication came when the other Chinese team, Qing Tian and Yunlei Zhao, lost to Denmark in an big upset. That placed the Chinese team on the same side of the bracket as the winner of Pool A. If both Chinese teams won their quarterfinal matches, they’d meet in the semifinals and only one would make it to the finals. At best that’s gold and bronze, not gold and silver.

To avoid this situation, the Wang and Yu tanked their game. The South Koreans did not want to meet the other Chinese team so they tanked also. At one point the four players traded 6 service errors in a row. Five went directly into the net. The one that made it over made in way over and went long off the back line. That’s much more like how I play in the backyard.

After the Chinese tried to throw their match, the South Korean team of Ha Jung-eun and Kim Min-jung faced the Indonesian team of Meiliana Jauhari and Greysia Pollii in Pool C. Both teams adopted a similar losing strategy to avoid having to face the fearsome Wang and Yu. (Watch the video and you can see that they were not trying.)

A well designed tournament should eliminate strategic losses. Getting a higher seed should convey a benefit, generally it means you play someone who isn’t as good. Pool play to determine seeding means more games and allows a margin of error for a team. Clearly the Olympics missed something.

The NBA tried to eliminate an incentive to lose by implementing a draft lottery instead of merely giving the highest draft pick to the team with the worst record. The NFL gives an incentive to win by giving the teams with the best record a week off before the playoffs. That still leaves some lackluster games at the end of the season when teams pull their starters.

Strategic losing does not appear to be a new strategy in badminton. Statistics show that more than 20 percent of matches is either not finished or not played when the Chinese play against their own compatriots. They met each other 99 times on the circuit in 2011, and 20 matches were either not played at all or played partially before one of the opponents retired. This shows that 20.20% of matches between Chinese shutters were not completed in 2011. But only 0.74% of matches were uncompleted between China and other nations.

What does this have to do with compliance? Look at your internal structures and incentives. Are any designed to allow an incentive to fail. Do any give incentive for one business unit to cause another to fail?