I can’t pretend to care much about genteel Victorian pastimes. Bar skittles? Not a fan. Shove halfpenny? The game won’t get me going. Quoits? Shuffleboard? Zzzzzzzzzz…. But I will admit to amazement when watching Olympic badminton, resurrected from that bygone era, but startlingly athletic in its modern materialization. Engineers describe the shuttlecock, the feathered conical object that players bat about, as a “high-drag” projectile. It starts out fast when furiously swatted, but quickly slows and hangs excruciatingly—the hang time allowing for strategic footwork and feints underneath, and treating spectators to barely bearable anticipation. It’s a sight to watch. With badminton players of great skill, the keen back and forth (fast, slow, slowest then again fast, slow, and slowest) seems to go on forever.
When, however, the longest rally lasted for only four shots in recent Olympic contests involving, Chinese, South Korean, and Indonesian women’s teams this summer in London, court-side fans began to boo and catcall. They suspected that the teams, including the reigning world champions, were intentionally trying to lose in order to gain a favorable placement, a pairing up against weaker opponents later in the round-robin competition when games would count for more. This time it certainly looked like the players were aiming for the net, botching serves, and feebly flubbing returns on purpose to fix the match. Olympic officials thought so, too, and sanctioned eight competitors on women’s doubles teams. Tanking the game just isn’t cricket, it isn’t sporting.
Alas there are so many ways to cheat. Boxers can throw a match—usually to benefit gamblers who will bet big on the sure loser. Pool players may lose on purpose, too, dumping games to lull a hapless opponent into a reckless bet. Horse trainers can fix a race by substituting a faster mount, a ringer—in harness racing, crooked sulkey drivers deflate their tires to handicap the favorite trotter. Or a team can tank a match for strategic reasons, like the players from China, South Korea, and Indonesia have.
A recent email note from my good friend professor Thomas Banchich, chair of the Classics Department at Canisius College, put some of this into perspective. He pointed out that tanking is an old, old practice that arose from time to time from varying motives. Tom recounts the story that the Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch (46-120 AD) told about Alexander the Great, who had lived four centuries before. Alexander, a warrior, and reputedly remarkably swift, became irate when a fearful or fawning opponent in a footrace appeared not to be giving his all. “For many kinds of glory,” Plutarch observed, “Alexander cared little”—particularly, we can guess, for any accolade that might follow from beating a bootlicker or one too scared to compete. According to Plutarch, Alexander once said that he’d consent to entering the footrace at Olympia, but only “if he had kings to contend with.”
The French theorist of play, Roger Caillois, said that play fell into four categories, alea (chance), memesis (role playing), “illinx” (a Greek word for the feeling we get riding a roller coaster), and finally agon (competition). The last of these, the strong competitive element at the modern games in London, drove the offending women’s teams to “game the rules.” But their subterfuge pales by comparison to the fierce and sometimes deadly struggle that the ancient Olympics produced. Those ancient games substituted for war, after all, a time when a sacred truce reigned, mostly. Says Tom Banchich, “for most Greeks the Olympics were neither play nor sport, but ἀγῶνες ‘agônes,’ which we translate as “contests,” but which obviously has a close link to “agonies.” Losing brought agony, plainly, in the form of shame and disgrace. But even victors suffered as they endured agonizing training. We might think of competition as “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” Banchich says, but for the Greeks, whose sensibilities differed from ours, it “was more like the agony of victory and the agony of defeat.”
In that atmosphere, playfulness never relieved competition. The Greeks would not have understood our word “sporting.” Instead they fiercely celebrated winning. They surely would have found the example of the disgraced women’s badminton’s teams unthinkable—and not only because the thought of women competing in the arena would have been so disgraceful as to be unthinkable. The drive to win contests ran so deep in that martial culture that bribing an opponent to tank a match brought the strongest condemnation and a massive fine. In the ancient Olympics, a motley scene of political rivalry, fervent religious ritual that included animal sacrifice, drunken revelry, gambling, prostitution, curse casting, wrestling matches that could end in death, the scheming itself, however, would have been regarded as unsurprising.