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Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Feb. 21, 2024

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Matt Calkins column: Tanking matches can be defended

The Columbian

You don’t need to know that 15 of the 16 participants were from the same high school, and that my father was from the other. You don’t need to know that the tournament, probably because of some editing error, was not highlighted in the local paper, causing my dad to initially drive to the wrong location.

All you need to know is that, after rerouting his car — pre GPS, mind you — James Arthur Calkins made a Willis Reed-like entrance into what was easily one of the top 25 amateur Southern California racket-sport events of the day … and went on to win the 1967 Los Angeles city badminton championship.

In other words, spare me the emails saying I’m not an authority on the sport.

If you haven’t heard by now, London’s biggest scandal since Edward VIII’s abdication has rocked the Olympic Games. Once nobility personified, badminton’s good name was tarnished after eight players were disqualified for trying to lose in hopes of drawing a weaker opponent in the elimination rounds.

My biggest fear is that when it’s all said and done, people will hear the term “shuttlecock” and start laughing.

So here I am to defend these birdie bashers in an effort to preserve the family legacy. Without badminton, after all, I’m just the guy whose mom can’t figure out how to walk on a treadmill.

Let us begin with the Cliff’s Notes version of this abomination.

Four women’s doubles teams — two from South Korea, one from China, and one from Indonesia — were booted from the Games for trying to lose. In a tournament setup inspired by “The Producers” (“We can make more money with a flop than we could with a hit!”), a victory would have pitted the aforementioned duos against a tougher opponent once bracket play began.

These weren’t gambling-triggered throws like what we saw with the Black Sox or NCAA point-shaving scandals. This was an intentional step back in order to take two steps forward.

Problem is, that step was about as graceful as John Daly at last call.

It’s not that there haven’t been ambitious teams and athletes that hoped for short-term failure. In 2006, the Clippers “rested their starters” toward the end of the season and lost five of their last seven games. The result was a drop to the sixth seed, which gave them — get this — home-court advantage against the third-seeded Nuggets, whom they beat in the first round.

But the Clippers at least resembled professional athletes during their freefall. The NBA equivalent to what these badminton tankers did would be players scoring on their own basket, or passing the ball to Hasheem Thabeet.

Did you actually see any of the “highlight” footage from London? One team served the birdie into the net eight times. By comparison, Mom looks like Carl freakin’ Lewis on that treadmill.

I think the lesson in all of this is that, if you’re going to lose on purpose, do it convincingly. If these badminton players switched spots with the Black Sox, they would have swung at intentional-walk pitches.

But that’s why I’m going to defend these shuttle smashers. They’re just not natural con artists, you see. Telling them to throw a game is like telling Elmo to mug a tourist. “Hi! Can you please give Elmo all your money … and a hug?!”

Look, I’ve always thought that losing intentionally is bad karma, and if there is any place it should be avoided, it’s under the Olympic torch. But despite the good money that fans paid to watch, and despite the undignified manner of these athletes’ attempts at defeat, every action taken was motivated by winning.

The boos, they deserved.

The boot, they did not.

That said, I have a pretty good feeling that most of you strongly disagree, and are already halfway through writing a scathing email. So I’ll try to end this column by putting a smile on your faces.


Matt Calkins can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or matt.calkins@columbian.com