I learned about this while listening to an old Radiolab episode recently. If you’re a Radiolab devotee, this is going to be an old story; if not, you should be, because Radiolab is great. -- Dan
 

Bad-Minton

Valeria Sorokina and Nina Vislova, above, are hardly household names. But if you were in London on August 4, 2012, you may have been fortunate enough to see these two Russian women receive bronze medals in the Olympic sport of badminton. (Yes, badminton is an Olympic sport.) As Olympic medal winners go, Sorokina and Vislova are two of the most unlikely -- they won only three of their six matches, beating teams that collectively had one win among them. The Russian duo wasn't very good relative to the competition, and yet, they came home wearing medals.

And the reason why? They may not have been a top-three team, talent-wise, but at least they tried their best. And in this Olympics, effort mattered more than results.

To understand why, first, we need to address the structure of Olympics badminton, at least in 2012. The 16 teams were broken up into four groups of four teams each. Each team played the other three in its group, with the top two advancing to an 8-team single-elimination (“knockout”) round to determine the medalists.  On July 31st, a few days before Sorokina and Vislova stood on the medal stand, the teams played their final matches of group play. At 8:30 AM local time, Sorokina/Vislova were in what most believed would be a meaningless Group A matchup versus Alexandra Bruce and Michelle Li of Canada. Both teams were winless thus far; based on the math, both were effectively eliminated at this point. Playing more for pride than anything else, Sorokina/Vislova won -- and expected their Games to end at that point.

But about an hour later that changed. 

At 9:40 AM, the eventual gold medalists -- Tian Qing and Zhao Yunlei from China -- faced off against Christinna Pedersen and Kamilla Rytter Juhl of Denmark. The Chinese team was a heavy favorite but the Danes pulled off the upset in a very close match, winning Group D in the process. The Tian/Zhao team took second in the group -- setting up a strange domino effect throughout the other groups. 

Back in Group A, another Chinese team -- the favorites going into the Games, Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang -- were paired against Koreans Jung Kyung-eun and Kim Ha-na, starting at 7:07 PM. The winner, if things were normal, would win Group A; the loser would take second. Both would advance to the knockout round, win or lose. Given that Wang/Yu were the tournament’s favorites, everyone expected them to triumph here -- everyone except for Wang and Yu themselves, that is. For the two Chinese teams, a Wang/Yu victory in this final group match would cause a problem. Assuming both Wang/Yu and Tian/Zhao both won their first-round matchup in the knockout round, they’d face each other in the semi-finals. That meant, at best, China could take gold and bronze; they’d be precluded from winning gold and silver.

So the Chinese played to lose. And in response, the Koreans -- wanting to avoid the other Chinese team if possible -- also played to lose. For about 25 minutes, each team increasingly tried to out-lose the other. You can watch the entire match here, and the intentions of both teams are pretty clear to anyone watching. It didn’t take long for the crowd to show their displeasure, either.

It took a while, but about eight minutes in, the boos of the crowd sparked the tournament organizer to act. He entered the court to warn both teams that they were at risk of disqualification if they didn’t start trying to win. But the message didn't sink in. The two teams called his bluff and continued on. Their unveiled attempts to lose were one-upped by one another for the remainder of the match, but ultimately, someone was going to get that 21st point and win. After a boring and boo-ridden 25 minutes or so, the Koreans “prevailed,” winning the match (and losing the battle of attrition) -- and no, they weren't disqualified (yet). There was still more weirdness to come.

The Korean "victory" meant that the winner of Group C would face off against Group A runners-up (and tournament favorites) Wang/Yu in the first round of knockout play. And the matchup to determine the winner of Group C was yet to be determined -- that game didn't start until 8:19 PM local time. It pitted the other Korean team -- Ha Jung-eun and Kim Min-jung -- against Meiliana Jauhari and Greysia Polii of Indonesia. Losing in the first round of knockout play was particularly bad as it precluded you from winning even a bronze medal, so neither wanted to play (and likely lose to) Wang/Yu. Instead, the two Group C teams also began to lose on purpose. It looked as if they wouldn't get away with it, though, as Wikipedia summarizes, "a tournament referee initially issued a black card to disqualify the players, but after the team's coaches remonstrated with him, this was rescinded ." Again the Korean team won, and it seemed like the drama was over. 

It wasn't.

The next day, the Badminton World Federation decided that the Chinese team, two Korean teams, and Indonesian teams were "not using [their] best efforts" in their respective matches -- and disqualified them from the tournament under those grounds. The third- and fourth-place finishers in Groups A and C were elevated to first and second place in their respective groups, returning the Russian duo of Sorokina and Vislova to the tournament.

In the knockout round, Sorkokina/Vislova -- the top seed from Group A -- played the second seed from Group C -- a South African pair which had gone winless in group play (and similarly only advanced due to the disqualifications). The Russians won and, as predicted, faced the Tian/Zhao team in the semifinals, and, as similarly predicted, lost by a lot. But making it to the semifinals earned Sorkokina/Vislova a ticket to the bronze medal game, where they played against the same Canadian team (Bruce/Li, which is a really great combination of last names) they had beaten just a few days earlier. And once again, Sorkokina/Vislova won -- taking home bronze in the process.

That will probably be the last time we'll see this happen, though. For the 2016 Games, the Badminton World Federation changed the tournament structure to prevent similar incentives to lose.

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Bonus fact: Badminton is one of three Summer Olympic sports in which the United States has never won a medal. Can you guess the other two? (Click here and scroll to the bottom of the table for the answer.)

From the ArchivesSometimes, To Win, You Have to Play to Lose: A very, very strange soccer match which could have passed for Olympic badminton, apparently.

Related: A backyard badminton set, so you can practice missing the birdies and/or slamming them haplessly into the net, just like real Olympians.
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