Win or lose, China’s Olympic athletes draw heat in London

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 1, 2012 

— It’s tough being a Chinese Olympian. When you win, people get upset. And if you try to lose, look out.

First an unheralded 16-year-old swimmer saw her two gold medal wins shadowed by cheating allegations.

Then came the disqualification Wednesday of China’s top badminton players, among eight kicked out overall, after they tried to set up an easier draw for the medal stages of competition by throwing an early-round match.

Olympics officials said the criticism of the swimmer was unfair – she passed her drug test – and fellow athletes said the badminton format, not the players, was to blame because it was ripe for manipulation. Yet the controversy continued, taking some of the shine off of China’s blistering medal pace over the first five days of the Games – 30 overall so far, 17 of them gold. The U.S. has won 28, including 11 gold.

“Other swimmers have won multiple golds, how come they criticize me?” the 16-year-old swimmer, Ye Shiwen, said Tuesday night after claiming her second gold medal, in the 200-meter individual medley. Asked to explain her success at a young age, she said, “It’s because of our training. We work really hard.”

Still, it’s become common for Chinese athletes to be subjected to extra scrutiny, warranted or not. China’s past penchant for doping in Olympic swimming, its rigorous government-run training program for athletes and its recent rise to medal supremacy all have fueled suspicions, particularly among rival nations.

It was a top American swimming official, John Leonard, who first described Ye’s world-record time in the 400-meter individual medley on Saturday as “disturbing,” setting off a flurry of tongue-wagging from current and former swimmers and coaches. After Ye passed a drug test Tuesday, Olympic officials rushed to her defense.

“My instinct is always to give the benefit of the doubt to the competitor until proven otherwise,” Sebastian Coe, the chair of the London Games and a two-time gold medalist in the 1,500 meter run, said Wednesday. “So my instinct for that is to celebrate what was an extraordinary performance.”

Even the badminton scandal – which has brought worldwide disrepute to a sport that Americans usually play in between hot dogs at summer cookouts – isn’t one of cheating per se, but rather of trying to win by losing.

The Badminton World Federation, the sport’s governing body, changed its format for the Olympics this year, adding a round-robin portion before the usual single-elimination round. The purpose was to allow more matches for lower-ranked players, but it created a dilemma: If competitors already had qualified for the elimination round, they could manipulate the results of the last round-robin to set up a more favorable matchup in the knockout portion.

The disqualified Chinese players – world doubles champions Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang – were trying to avoid being placed in the same bracket as another Chinese team in the knockout round. So when they took the court Tuesday for their final group matches, Wang and Yu didn’t exactly play up to their champion status. They repeatedly served into the net and missed routine smashes. The only possible conclusion: They were working hard to lose.

Their South Korean opponents, who’d also qualified for the elimination round, saw what was going on and adopted the same tactics, prompting warnings from the umpire and boos from a crowd expecting a spirited match. The Chinese pair eventually succeeded in losing.

An hour later, another South Korean team and a team from Indonesia took the court. Neither team wanted to end up in the same side of the elimination draw as gold-medal favorites Wang and Yu, so they, too, proceeded to throw their match.

“Depressing,” Coe said. “Who wants to sit through something like that?”

Wang and Yu, the Indonesian duo and the two South Korean teams were all expelled for “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive to or detrimental to the sport,” the badminton federation said.

But other players were more understanding of what the teams were trying to do.

“I don’t believe the athletes are at fault because they want to win, so you have to consider the organizers,” Lin Dan, a Chinese singles player, said after his match Wednesday.

“They should have thought ahead and seen that this kind of situation might happen and thought what they could have done to avoid this situation and stop it happening again in the future,” he said.

Xu Chen, a Chinese mixed doubles player, said, “If you set this kind of rule, as long as it’s a legal requirement, it is really up to us how we play the game.”

“I much preferred the situation in Beijing 2008 when we had the straight knockout.”

Other reports of match-throwing dogged badminton. An Indian coach accused a Japanese women’s pair of throwing a match Tuesday against a team from Taiwan to avoid facing the No. 2 Chinese team in the knockout stage. The Taiwanese team’s advance, however, eliminated an Indian duo that had beaten the Taiwanese in the group stage.

Badminton officials haven’t indicated if they’ll take any action against the Japanese team.

“The system is first at fault,” said the Indian coach, Pullella Gobi Chand. “The players will do whatever they can to win a medal and if losing means a better draw, they will do it.”

Jan Jorgensen, a badminton player from Denmark, expressed the same sentiment with a hip-hop catch phrase that’s probably never been applied to badminton before.

“Don’t hate the player,” he said, “hate the game.”

Email: Twitter: @shashankbengali

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