The Ethics of Competition

“The Ethics of Competition” in the Harvard Ethics Center Research in Action Blog
August, 2012


An interesting cheating scandal recently rocked the 2012 Summer Olympic games. It didn’t involve gambling, blood doping, or performance enhancing drugs. In fact, the problem was with poor, not enhanced, performance. Eight badminton Olympians were disqualified because they did such a good job of losing.

The details are a bit complex for those of us who don’t regularly follow the sport, but in essence, four teams apparently tried to lose in a preliminary round in order to secure matchups in subsequent rounds that would increase their chances of winning a medal. More specifically, two Chinese teams were on track to play each other in the semi-finals, meaning only one could advance to the medal round. If one of these teams lost in the preliminary round, however, they would be placed in a different bracket and both teams would still have a chance to win medals. Thus, the Chinese team started to play badly in their matchup with South Korea. However, it also became apparent to the South Koreans that their overall chances could improve by being in the other bracket as well. The result was a comically bad match, with each team trying their best to lose. A similar scenario played out an hour later between another South Korean team and Indonesia. The South Koreans wanted to lose to avoid competing against the other South Korean team, and Indonesia wanted to lose to avoid being in the bracket with the dominant Chinese team. (Badminton is not the only sport to suffer from these problems: similar accusations have been made of teams underperforming to secure better seeds in the soccer and basketball tournaments.)

Fans and Olympic officials were clearly dismayed by the poor performance of these world-class athletes, and the decision to disqualify them appears to be a popular one. However, it is worth asking what exactly these players did that was wrong. The answer is less obvious than it might appear at first glance, but likely holds some lessons for how we ethically evaluate a wide range of contests in the real world.

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