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LOSING TO WIN

The gods who oversee the Olympic Games every four years smile only upon the winners. The losers are seldom remembered in spite of the much-flaunted motto that participation in the Games is more important than winning. That motto, whatever its old-world charm, is meaningless to most sportsmen competing at the highest level. Sportsmen play to win. In the context of the Olympic Games, winning has a very specific and limited connotation. It means winning the gold medal. No top-class athlete competes to win the silver or the bronze. He might be forced to accept a silver or a bronze medal because some other individual on that given day proves to be the best, but the aim of most sportsmen is to win the gold. In some events, because of the nature of the competition, trying to win the top medal involves planning and tactical thinking. There can be occasions when tactics dictate that immediate gains be sacrificed for ensuring a better chance to win the gold medal. However distressing this might sound, sport, like politics, means the maximization of the possible.

Thus it could be entirely reasonable in tactical terms for a team to lose a match because by losing they might get to play an inferior team in the next round. This is exactly what the eight condemned badminton players were trying to do. They have been charged with match-fixing. This, not to put too fine a point on it, is incorrect and unfair. Match-fixing has come to mean losing a match for pecuniary gains. The players who have been suspended from the Olympic Games were not involved in any kind of financial transaction. Their actions, as far as their logic can be worked out, was dictated by their desire to win or to enhance their chances of winning. How can this be condemned? To condemn such an act is to strike at the root of all competitive sports. It is also to take the mind out of games as if sports are only brawn and no brains. It is difficult thus to understand and justify the decision of the Badminton World Federation. If the decision was aimed at preserving some notion of purity of the Olympics then it must be pointed out that no such notion exists, if it ever existed at all.

The other more general charge that is being levelled is the one of gamesmanship. This term or mode of behaviour haunts the game of cricket, which continues to harbour, in a bizarre manner, the illusion of gentlemanly behaviour on the playing field. There is a line that demarcates gamesmanship and a breach of the rules of a particular game. A sportsman or a team should try and win without breaking rules. It is an otiose exercise to attempt a separation between sportsmanship and gamesmanship. Competitive sports in the modern world engage human beings at various levels, not just at the level of athletic prowess. The condemned players were only looking ahead to maximize their possibilities of winning gold. They lost to win. That does not deserve punishment.