The Sports Law & Policy Centre | What a Racket! Fair Play and the Olympic Games
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What a Racket! Fair Play and the Olympic Games

By Nandan Kamath

“The most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

Baron Pierre Coubertin, founder of the Modern Olympics.

Introduction

In the recently concluded London 2012 Olympic Games (“Games”), eight female badminton players from three Asian nations were disqualified by the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) and the Badminton World Federation (“BWF”) for trying to lose their matches on purpose in order to gain a more favourable draw in the knockout stages of doubles competition. The BWF banned the players from China, Korea and Indonesia who were deemed to have not used their best effort to win qualifying matches.

The players were found to have violated the BWF’s Players Code of Conduct, which provides that any player who “fails to use one’s best efforts” or “conducts oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport” shall be in breach of the Code and shall be penalised.

The above episode was not the only instance during the Games where athletes were accused of not putting in their “best efforts”. The Algerian runner Taoufik Makhloufi was initially expelled from the Games by the International Association of Athletics Federations (“IAAF”) and the IOC for “not trying” in an 800-meter qualifying heat. It was alleged that Makhloufi forfeited his qualifying run so that he could focus on the 1500 meter final which was his preferred event. However, Makhloufi was later reinstated and allowed to race after the Olympic Committee was satisfied that he was carrying an injury for the 800 meter qualifying heat. Further, the Japanese women’s football team played for a 0-0 tie in a group stage match with South Africa instead of trying to win in order to avoid the top ranked USA women’s football team and Spain’s national Basketball team were alleged to not have given their best effort against Brazil in the group stage as the winners of the tie would face the gold medal favourites, the USA.

These incidents have brought to light a phenomenon which is endemic to many sports i.e. of teams or players losing matches on purpose or not exerting any effort to win the match. This article briefly discusses some of these instances and the measures put in place by relevant authorities to confront this problem.

Football

Occasionally, football teams have been accused of deliberately playing for a draw or a particular score and not putting in their best effort to win a match where there is some mutual benefit (such as both teams advancing to the next stage of a tournament). Such acts may also fall under the purview of match fixing in some cases, as the required results usually represent an exact score or combination of scores for the two teams.

The most famous example of this is the 1982 FIFA World Cup group stage match between West Germany and Austria, which is often referred to as the “Shame of Gijon” after the city it was played in. A win by a one or two goal margin for West Germany would put both teams through to the quarterfinals at the expense of Algeria, who were the other team in contention for a quarter final and had already completed all their group matches. West Germany took the lead in the eleventh minute, a score line which meant that both teams would qualify for the quarterfinals. Thereafter, players of both teams promptly stopped attacking the opponent’s goal and the match degenerated into seventy-nine minutes of pointless passing of the ball around the two defences until the final whistle. The result confirmed the passage of the two teams and the elimination of Algeria from the tournament.

The furore over the result and the conduct of the players forced FIFA and subsequently UEFA to change the rules for all of their future tournaments so that the final round of group matches would be played simultaneously by all teams in a group to minimise the risk of such events repeating.

Unfortunately, even when final group games kick off at the same time, there is still no guarantee that teams will not play out a result that suits them both. At the 2004 UEFA European Championships, Denmark and Sweden recognised that a 2-2 draw would see both sides progress on goal difference at the expense of Italy. After both teams scored two goals each, neither side tried to score again in the closing stages of the match.

The chances of teams not giving their best effort are higher in the closing stages of a league system, wherein one team often has nothing to play for as a consequence of earlier results. To combat instances such as these, major footballing leagues such as the English Premier League and Spanish Primera Liga ensure that the last round of league matches are played simultaneously in order to avoid the possibility of teams deliberately underperforming.

American Sports

The practice of not trying to win and losing games on purpose or “tanking” as it is known in the US is rampant amongst all the major professional leagues in America. There have been several instances of teams losing on purpose in the National Hockey League (“NHL”), National Football League (“NFL”) and most notably in the National Basketball Association (“NBA”) in order to obtain some indirect benefit. While there are no rules which specifically prohibit teams from tanking games, it is considered to be on the borderline of fair play and gamesmanship.

The motivation for teams to not put in their best efforts in these leagues stems primarily from a system which, until recently, was unique to American sports; i.e., The Player Draft (“Draft”) which takes place at the beginning of every season. In the Draft, teams that do poorly in the previous season usually get to choose a player first in the postseason draft in order to encourage parity. This ensures that no team can sign contracts with all of the best upcoming talent, thus making the league uncompetitive. However, this has also resulted in a few teams throwing away a season that has started badly so as to be in a better position for the draft pick next year

While the NFL and NHL directly provide the first Draft pick to the worst performing team of the previous season, thus providing a bigger incentive to tank, the NBA employs a more complicated system known as the Draft lottery in an effort to curb the motivation to tank.

However, in the NBA, teams continue to routinely tank games in order to improve their position in the Draft. In 2012 NBA season, the Golden State Warriors along with the Portland Trailblazers apparently indulged in widespread tanking once it was evident that they were not going to make the play off stages.

In addition to gaining an advantageous position in the Draft, teams in the NBA and NFL often tank in order to face easier opponents or to avoid top seeded teams in the playoff stages of a league season. In the 2006 NBA season, the Los Angeles Clippers allegedly tanked late season games to face a lower ranked opponent the Denver Nuggets in the playoff stages of the NBA. In the closing game of the 2004 NFL season, the Indianapolis Colts allegedly tanked the final league game against the Denver Broncos so as to ensure that they faced the Broncos in the playoff stage again. Sure enough, the Colts went on to defeat the Broncos in the following week in the playoffs.

Tennis

In the world of Tennis, a rarely invoked regulation enables tournament umpires in the Associations of Tennis Professionals (“ATP”) World Tour, Women’s Tennis Association (“WTA”) World tour, and the Grand Slams to penalise a player for “lack of best effort.”

The ATP World Tour code of conduct states that “A player shall use his best efforts during the match when competing in a tournament. Violation of this section shall subject a player to a fine up to $10,000 for each violation.” The Rule Book further provides that the supervisor and/or the chair umpire shall have the authority to penalise a player in case of such indiscretion.

Along with the ATP, the WTA and the Grand Slams both have similarly worded regulations to punish players for not giving best effort. Further, all these regulations do not spell out any specific criteria that should be followed in determining whether a player is putting in his/her best effort or showing a lack of effort, which makes it impossible to keep the application of the rule from being arbitrary.

There have been a few scattered instances of the best effort rule being enforced by tennis’ governing bodies. Perhaps the most famous example is the case of the Russian tennis player, Nikolay Davydenko who was fined US $2000 by the ATP Tour for “lack of effort” in a 2007 ATP tour event at St. Petersburg. Going further back, in 2000, Marat Safin, was fined for lack of best effort in his first round defeat to Grant Stafford at the Australian Open, while even the Swiss great Roger Federer fell astray of the rule early in his career and was fined $100 at a Satellite event in Switzerland in the year 1998. Most recently, the Romanian Tennis Player, Victor Hanescu was fined US $7500 after his defeat to Daniel Brands at Wimbledon for not putting in his “best effort”.

Formula 1

Sports such as Formula 1 or other forms of motor racing are not immune to the practise of competitors not giving their best effort due to the existence of team orders. Team orders are usually instructions given to drivers of the same team ordering them to deviate from the normal practice of racing against each other as they would against other teams’ drivers or to cede position on the track to team mates as a part of the overall strategy of the team. The validity of these team orders and the question as to whether they constitute an acceptable tactic or are blatant fixing of the results has often been debated by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (“FIA”), the governing body of Formula 1.

While team orders have existed in Formula 1 since its inception, the issue truly became prominent after the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, wherein the eventual winner, Michael Schumacher of Ferrari, only won the race because of team orders. Schumacher’s teammate, Rubens Barrichello, who was leading the race until the last lap, was ordered to slow down his car in order to let Schumacher through to win the Grand Prix. The win helped Schumacher extend his lead in the driver’s championship but deprived spectators and fans of a legitimate result and a legitimate race winner. The FIA levied a fine of 1 million pounds on Ferrari and banned the use of team orders from the 2003 season by inserting article 39.1 in the F1 Sporting Regulations which stated:

“Team Orders which interfere with a race result are prohibited.”

However, these regulations were repealed in the year 2010, when several occurrences demonstrated that teams continued to manipulate races, whether it was allowed or not. Having a rule banning team orders simply meant that teams found duplicitous ways of employing them. This was demonstrated in the European Grand Prix 2010 wherein the Ferrari team tacitly ordered Felippe Massa to let his team-mate, Fernando Alonso overtake him and win the race. While an explicit command to slow down was never given by Ferrari, the words they chose had enough subtext to imply that Massa had to slow down for his team-mate who, unlike Massa was competing for the driver’s championship.

Conclusion

It is evident that existing rules and safeguards do not adequately address incidents where sportsmen have not given their best efforts. The determination of such incidents remains highly subjective as there is a fine line between strategy and cheating while employing such tactics. This is equally relevant in team sports where there are other methods employed such as resting key players and putting out second-string squads for non-key matches.

Ultimately, sporting contests depend upon competition and uncertainty. The reality of a contest provides sports its primary purpose and dynamic. Taking competition out of a sport contest by not aiming for a win, even if it is in one’s own longer-term interest, reduces it to nothing more than a scripted farce. Intentionally losing or throwing a match violates not only the core integrity of the sport, it disregards the faith of spectators, supporters and the stake holders who invest time, money and emotional attachment in following a team, a sportsman or the sport itself regularly. At the same time, sports bodies and organisers must establish procedures and incentive structures that do not encourage deliberate underperformance and protect the integrity of sporting competition.

While the BWF decision at the Olympics was unsurprising, the impugned behaviour was tacitly encouraged with the Olympic group stage qualification criteria established by the BWF itself. With the stakes constantly being raised in professional sport, the last word has certainly not been written on this subject, a subject that is at the very essence of sporting competition.

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