RIO DE JANEIRO – Yu Yang’s racquet sliced through the air, sending desperation volleys back to her Danish opponents. It was match point. At stake, the chance to play for Rio Olympic gold in women’s doubles badminton. This was everything.
The final hit from the Danes traveled at 214 miles per hour, and Yang couldn’t return it, as her team tumbled out of the semifinals and into the bronze medal consolation match. But it wasn’t for lack of effort in the three-set defeat.
While it’s usually not noteworthy that an athlete would try her hardest to win an Olympic event, it was significant in Yang’s case. Because the last time she participated in the Summer Games, in London 2012, she did everything she could to not win a match.
The last time she competed in Olympic badminton, her tournament didn’t end with a chance at a medal – it ended with a trip back to China in disgrace.
Yang was one of eight women’s badminton doubles players who were disqualified in the 2012 London Games for intentionally trying to lose preliminary matches in order to manipulate seeding for the elimination rounds.
While that sounds terrible, it really doesn’t capture the scope of how pathetic a sight this really was: Four players, serving directly into the net; or, on the rare occasion it would clear the net, staring motionless as the shuttlecock fell to the floor. It was the lowest point in badminton’s 24-year history as an Olympic sport, an embarrassing scandal that earned it global ridicule.
The controversy caused coaches to be suspended and tournament rules to be rewritten; and while one might assume any athlete involved in the nadir of the sport might never step onto the Olympic stage again, four women’s doubles players involved in the match throwing were competing in the Rio 2016 Games.
They were here to put the scandal behind them, even if its stench has trailed behind them four years later.
Embarrassing doesn’t do it justice.
“It was so obvious,” said Selina Piek, a women’s doubles player from the Netherlands, recalling the London match throwing. “Maybe be a little smarter about it. But that’s hard when both teams are trying to lose.”
That’s Yang and her partner Wang Xiaoli competing against South Korea’s Jung Kyun-eun and Kim Ha-na. Well, “competing” might be a stretch, considering these were four athletes knocking the shuttlecock into the net on serves to the booing, hissing displeasure of the spectators. At one point referee Thorsten Berg walked over to warn them that both teams could be disqualified if they don’t “play or compete,” clapping his hands and making a swinging motion with his arm as if to say, “Hitting … do you remember it?”
Yang then hit the next shot over the net. The South Koreans didn’t move to hit it back, letting it drop to the floor. China scored a point and the crowd mockingly cheered.
Xiaoli then put the next shot into the net. On purpose.
The match-throwing continued, until South Korea walked off the court with a victory in name only.
After the match, Yang sold the lie that this wasn’t an intentional loss by her team. “These opponents really were strong,” she said. “We’ve already qualified, and we wanted to have more energy for the knockout rounds.”
(No word if the media on hand drowned in the sudden pile of equine excrement they were surrounded by.)
So why did this match-throwing happen?
It happened because this is what China did.
Petya Nedelcheva of Bulgaria was on the court next to the Chinese and South Korean players during the 2012 debacle. “[China] did it so many times last year, they didn’t play against each other in 20 tournaments. They do what they want,” she told the Guardian.
The nation was notorious for having its teams throw matches in order to manipulate tournaments. In the London Games, the mission was simple for Yang and Xiaoli: Lose on purpose to avoid having to face countrywomen Tian Qing and Zhao Yunlei in the semifinals. Manipulate the elimination round seedings to ensure that China could captured both gold and silver in an all-Chinese final.
(To wit: Qing and Yunlei would go on to win gold after the disqualifications.)
But the South Koreans weren’t having it. So they decided to play a game of “anything you can’t do we can’t do worse,” and attempted to throw the match as well.
“If they played right, the Chinese team, this wouldn’t happen,” South Korean coach Sung Han-kook said at the time. “So we did the same.”
There was a domino effect due to China’s match manipulation. It led to a second Olympic preliminary in which both teams attempted to lose: South Korea’s Ha Jung-eun and Kim Min-jung against the Indonesian team of Greysia Polii and Meilianna Jauhari.
The Badminton World Federation acted swiftly before the elimination tournament began, disqualifying the four teams from the London Olympics for violating the players’ code by “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.”
Their places in the elimination rounds were taken by teams that finished directly in back of them. South Korea’s appeal of the ruling was rejected. Indonesia’s appeal was withdrawn. The teams were out of the tournament, and badminton had taken a speeding shuttlecock to the eye as an Olympic sport.
But the greatest scandal in Olympic badminton history is less about the puppets that participated in it than the puppeteers that orchestrated it. What began as outrage against the players soon became sympathy, as it was apparent they were victims of a fractured format and at the mercy of their coaches.
China coach Li Yongbo attempted to save his players by admitting he told them to manipulate the system, and asked that he fall on his sword to keep them in the tournament. But his pleas were ignored.
“It’s different in their culture,” said the Netherlands’ Piek. “When the head coach of China tells you that you are going to lose a match, then I will pee my pants in fear and I will lose that match.”
There had to be repercussions.
China’s coach did take the blame back home, and was removed from coaching the women’s doubles team. The Korea Badminton Association initially banned two coaches for life, but an appeal dropped the suspension to two years.
The last thing the Badminton World Federation wanted was a repeat of this nonsense in Rio. So as a result, it rewrote its rulebook “to ensure such a regrettable spectacle is never witnessed in badminton again,” said secretary general Thomas Lund of Denmark.
At the start of the tournament, there’s a draw for group play, which you can watch here. Seeded players were set in their groups, and the draw placed everyone else in the field.
For singles, the bracket for the elimination round was set by having the top seed from 16 different groups, lettered A-P, qualify for the bracket. Obviously there’s no messing around with seeding, because only one player from each group advanced.
For doubles, the top-ranked pairs from each of four groups were placed into their brackets after pool play. Here is where the big rules change from the London debacle comes in: The second-place finishers from each group were then placed into another draw – names inside a big box – and drawn randomly to fill out the bracket.
Hence, Yang’s team was randomly seeded against Indonesia – and Polii, who was also thrown out of the London Games for match throwing.
“I think it’s a good thing that the draw has been made after group stage because what happened in London was quite shameful for our sport. Hopefully, we never have to experience that again,” said Piek.
The players involved in the scandal just want to forget that experience ever happened.
“It’s been already four years. I think it’s best that we do our best in the present,” Jung Kyung-eun of South Korea said, through an interpreter.
Was she pleased that the BWF had taken action to prevent match throwing?
“I’m not really sure if I’m the one that can say that I’m satisfied with the rules,” she said.
Yu Yang is teary-eyed.
The Chinese Olympian, 30, has just revealed to the media after China’s semifinal loss that the bronze medal match will be her last.
It’s not the first time she’s stepped away from the sport. Yang, in fact, quit badminton after being disqualified from the London Games. She defiantly claimed that the BWF and the IOC had acted egregiously in disqualifying teams that were simply exploiting an easily manipulated format, on the advice of her coaches.
“Goodbye Badminton World Federation, goodbye my beloved badminton,” she wrote on Weibo in 2012. “You have heartlessly shattered our dreams. This is unforgivable.”
Her former partner left the sport due to injury and now operates a restaurant in Beijing. But Yang found saying goodbye to badminton more difficult. A gold medalist in Beijing’s 2008 Games, Yang began playing again fairly soon after her declaration, and worked her way back to the Rio Games.
Rather than forgiving the BWF and the IOC for their decision to disqualify her, she chooses to forget. “It’s a blank in my mind,” said Yang on Tuesday, through an interpreter. “I forgot about it. It’s the past.”
But her last appearance in the Olympics, Thursday’s bronze medal match, offers an unavoidable reminder of the London scandal and some incredible symmetry, given the newly established random draw format:
For the bronze medal, Yang and her partner will face Jung Kyung-eun of South Korea and her partner.
Presumably, this time they’ll be playing to win.
More Summer Olympics coverage on Yahoo Sports:
Listen to Yahoo Sports’ Greg Wyshynski podcast from Rio on GRANDSTANDING, featuring Olympians and NBC cultural correspondents Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski!
Live from Rio: Tara & Johnny Q & A, green fart water, and more: