Sunday, August 05, 2012

Unsportsmanlike or defensible strategy?

When Bad Dad picked me up at the airport last night, he asked my opinion about the olympic badminton scandal. I had to confess to being too busy at the NCAR class and visiting with Boulder friends to follow the olympics.

When he explained it to me, I could see the everyone's point.
  • It wasn't fair to the fans that paid about $50 a ticket to see the thrown matches.
  • It wasn't fair to the players because throwing a match in order to get an easier match in the next round is not against the rules.  Who wouldn't want to preserve their energy for the single elimination round if you are already qualified to advance?  And why wouldn't you aim for the easier draw if you could?
  • At this high level of sport, the coach makes the call.  The Chinese coach has already apologized for ordering his players to throw the match.  
  • If the players had disobeyed their coach, how long do you think they will remain on the Chinese national team?
  • It was the fault of the officials for not anticipating this entirely rational response by the players and their coaches.
NBC paid a billion dollars for the right to broadcast the olympics.  The WSJ paid considerably less than that.  I laughed out loud when I saw this WTF video produced by WSJDigital.  Despite the clothespin players, this is a very good explanation of the events.  Besides, badminton is the fastest of all racket sports, exceeding 200 mi/hr initial speed at this level of competition.  You are unlikely to be able to follow along in a normal speed video.  The pom pom here is more illustrative.

In case you were wondering why Bad Dad wanted my opinion

I played on my high school badminton team. I made junior varsity as a freshman and varsity in my sophomore year as part of a doubles team. I played varsity singles my last two years of high school and was the top seed for my school in my senior year.

For the last two years, our HS coach was a former NFL football player and track and field star in college.  I have never spent that much time with such a gifted athlete before and it was a revelation.  Part of the revelation was how much preparation and thought he put into being a "gifted" athlete.

No coach before or since has ever kept such good statistics of my game stats and analyzed so minutely why I won or lost certain matches.  It's quite painful and enlightening to have your strengths and weaknesses catalogued like that.  It was excellent preparation for grad school.

And then there were my club volleyball years

Average-height girls (5'5") don't usually get much game time at the competitive club volleyball level but I developed some skills to compensate.  One VB coach used to put a towel on the court and watched as we took turns to serve a ball to the towel.  We'd have to run a (1/4 mi) lap after practice for every ball hit into the net or that went wide.  I became very accurate.

Statistically, it's a good practice to serve at the player closest to the setter in the rotation.  You can either draw and force the setter to take the serve return, or slow down the transition to the set by causing interference between that player and the setter.  Either gives the serving team an advantage.

In one game, the setter was in the middle, which meant that there was enough margin of error for me to serve "floaters", which can jump suddenly and unpredictably in the last split second.  I did what came naturally and the non-setting player muffed several passes.

Her coach called a time out to let her calm down.  My coach told me to keep serving to her.

We scored more points.  They called another time out.

Then her teammates crowded around her to give her protection, leaving the corners of the court open.  I served an ace into one of the corners and the players edged back into their normal positions.  I returned to serving the girl who was crying.

I served 15 balls in a row to wherever my coach signaled me to place them.  At the end of that match, I was emotionally worn out and crying, too.  I wasn't proud of myself for inflicting emotional damage to an opponent.  But, that was my coach's call and a winning strategy.

How can I fault another player for doing the same?

My heart goes out to the disqualified badminton players.

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