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Is China's lust for Olympic gold fading?

By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN
August 3, 2012 -- Updated 1136 GMT (1936 HKT)
Wang Xiaoli and Yang Yu of China and Ha Na Kim and Kyung Eun Jung of South Korea at the London 2012 Games on July 31.
Wang Xiaoli and Yang Yu of China and Ha Na Kim and Kyung Eun Jung of South Korea at the London 2012 Games on July 31.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Olympic badminton flap raises questions about seeking favorable draws
  • Eight players disqualified for trying to throw their matches in doubles event
  • Is deliberately trying to lose a match smart tactics or disguised cheating?
  • There are signs Chinese people are questioning the "gold-at-all-costs" mentality

Editor's note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and was TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing (CNN) -- Eight female badminton players were disqualified from the Olympics this week for apparently trying to throw their matches to secure a favorable draw.

It's not the first time sports people have tried to improve their chances of winning, but is deliberately trying to lose a match smart tactics or disguised cheating?

Two of the players involved were reigning world champions, Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang, who were considered gold medal contenders for China.

China's sports officials quickly accepted the punishment and players apologized publicly, although Yu subsequently suggested she was quitting the sport.

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Soon after the badminton controversy broke it was the top-trending topic on Weibo, China's most popular micro-blogging site, with over 15 million posts.

Read more: Badminton players disqualified for trying to lose

Many cried foul, saying the athletes' behavior was a disgraceful breach of the Olympic code and was disrespectful of the spectators who paid money to watch the world's best athletes do their best.

One blogger said: "Whatever purpose their behavior may be, it shows a loss of sports ethics." But others defended the players and blamed badminton's competition rules.

Win or lose, observers noted, all four pairs had already qualified for the next round. In the two separate matches, they played perfunctorily to lose so they could avoid facing their own teammates, or the top seeds, in the next round of competition.

"The rules are irrational," one blogger wrote. "You can't blame those who adopt a flexible strategy."

Another blogger said: "I feel sympathy for the players because they have worked so hard and their dreams ended in London."

Read more: London Olympics special

Soon after her disqualification, Yu Yang, only 26 years old, said she was quitting badminton. "This is my last match," she wrote in a micro-blog to her 1.3 million followers. "Farewell, my beloved badminton."

The next day, Yu Yang said sorry. "I apologize to all our fans because we failed to abide by the Olympic spirit," she said. "I am ready to do my best in every game of my professional career in future."

It's unclear if Yu Yang is retiring, but the badminton flap has reopened one nagging debate in sports: is it fair to intentionally lose for tactical advantage?

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"This is simple stratagem," argued blogger qingchengweiliang. "Any country would adopt it if they could. "

To be sure, similar controversy has hit other sports.

In a World Cup match in 1982, West Germany quickly led Austria, 1-0 and the teams perfunctorily kicked the ball around the field for nearly 80 minutes. Why? Because they knew that the outcome would allow both teams to advance in the next round of competition.

The infamous match later prompted the World Cup to revise its rules so that the final matches in group stage are played at the same time.

It's not the first time Chinese sports teams have intentionally lost games to gain advantage.

I remember a controversy in the late 1980s. Playing at the World Championship in 1986, table tennis star He Zhili was instructed by her coaches to throw her semifinal match against a team mate, a defensive player, because they concluded that she stood a better chance than He to beat a South Korean in the final.

But He Zhili ignored the instructions and went on to beat her teammate and, a match later, the South Korean.

Partly because of her insubordination, He was dropped from China's three-woman Olympic team in 1988.

The incident triggered little controversy. Chinese athletes typically abide by the idea of "organization discipline," which expects them to subordinate personal gain and fame to the team's—and the Motherland's—interest.

A similar incident involved the Chinese badminton team at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, says a report by the Sina.com sports.

When a Danish player trounced her Chinese opponent in the women's singles semifinals, the Chinese team officials asked coach Chen Peide to convince top player Ye Zhaoying to drop her semifinal match to teammate Gong Zhichao because they thought Gong had a better chance of beating the Dane.

Ye reluctantly agreed.

In the end, Gong won the gold medal and Ye the bronze.

Years later, coach Chen recalled how badly he felt about the episode. "After we returned to China, I repeatedly praised Ye Zhaoying," he said. "Still it's difficult to make up for it."

Chen said: "Many times national interest and the Olympic spirit are not contradictory, but sometimes they unavoidably clash. Should national interest be above everything, or should it be the Olympic spirit? This should make everyone ponder."

The badminton controversy in London has triggered heated debate in China, with many people challenging the "gold-is-everything" mentality in Chinese sports.

Many times national interest and the Olympic spirit are not contradictory, but sometimes they unavoidably clash.
Chen Peide

Some blame the lure of fame, cash and commercial endorsements that often come after the Olympic athletes' gold medal performances.

"Is this all athlete's fault? Not really," wrote a Xinhua correspondent, who blamed China's sports system of apportioning medals among players because, "apart from the coaches, sports officials and administrators (who supervise the winning athletes) will also be rewarded when athletes win gold medals."

On China's Weibo, the hot topic in recent days has been "No gold medal, still a hero."

I see a hint of change.

In the men's table tennis singles final match on Thursday, Wang Hao, 28, twice a silver medalist in two previous Olympics, faced compatriot Zhang Jike, 24, the reigning world champion.

It's a gold medal in the bag for the Chinese team.

If this played out several years ago, my guess is, the Chinese team would probably have decided before the match that Wang Hao should get the gold to top off his impressive but always-a-bridesmaid-never-the-bride career.

Instead, the two paddlers seemingly played for gold, entertaining the London spectators with their spinning serves and furious smashes.

Zhang Jike won the match 4-1—and the Olympic gold.

Zhang is now hailed as China's new Olympic star, but the Chinese media is also heaping praise on the loser, Wang Hao.

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