FIRST there was shuttle diplomacy — when envoys criss-crossed the globe to ease tension between warring parties. Then there was “Ping Pong diplomacy” — a term coined in the 1970s when Richard Nixon’s administration used a table tennis tour to ease Sino-American tensions.
Now there is shuttle-cock diplomacy. And that is when the feathers really start to fly.
Emerging superpower China annoyed neighbouring Malaysia this week as an unprecedented Chinese domination of badminton’s showpiece event — the All-England Championships — led to heated claims of match-fixing.
The Malaysians believed the Chinese team had forced defending men’s champion Chen Jin to retire from his semi-final to allow countryman and Olympic gold medallist Lin Dan an easy path to the final. Once there, the well-rested Chinese competitor smashed his Malaysian opponent. Malaysia called shenanigans. “Everyone in the world of badminton is talking about it. They (China) know our reaction but they just do not care,” Malaysian coach Rashid Sidek thundered afterwards as the Malaysian Badminton Association lodged an official complaint. “They do not see that their actions are bringing a bad reputation to the sport. Yes, this is affecting the sport as a whole. We do not condone such tactics. For us, we want the best players on the day to win.”
This is a serious issue and threatens to turn a serious sport into something of a farce. Badminton does not need it. Already it faces certain inbuilt impediments — the New Zealand national team is known, for example, as the Black Cocks.
The Chinese are a philosophical bunch but appear to have missed one of the central tenets of match-fixing. You are not ordinarily expected to admit it.
That is why many were surprised last year when head coach Li Yongbo boasted rather proudly of having rigged the results of women’s matches at the 2004 Athens Olympics, a piece of cock and bull that had been long suspected by other nations.
In response, authorities resolved to set up an ethics committee to ensure it never happened again.
Yet at the Olympics in Beijing, similar suspicions arose as China took three of the five gold medals on offer.
According to the allegations, China takes advantage of the large number of Chinese competitors to rig results in matches that feature two Chinese players. One player retires “hurt” while the pre-ordained favourite gets an easy ride and is fresher for the next round against a weary opponent. Match-fixing is also used to manipulate world rankings so that the maximum number of Chinese competitors qualify for major tournaments.
Cultural theorists have rushed to explain the Chinese enthusiasm for pre-determining results as stemming from a tradition in which national glory takes precedence over individual achievement. National coaches do not see anything wrong with cheating in order to assist the greater good and Chinese athletes would never think to question such a directive, they say.
More traditional sports fans — those who prefer to see the result of the match settled during the encounter — are urging the World Badminton Association to stand up to the nation that is easily its most powerful member and start banning Chinese coaches and competitors. Otherwise, they worry, failure to tackle the problem could see the sport stripped of Olympic status. That, most certainly, would be one hell of a cock-up.