Eight badminton players (four doubles teams) in the Olympics have been booted out because of charges that they deliberately lost their games. Why might they have wanted to lose? Because these were pool games in qualifying rounds and whom one played in the subsequent round depends upon your ranking in your qualifying group. Being second in your group may sometimes provide a better path to getting to the finals than being first, depending on how teams in the other groups fare. This kind of tactical maneuvering for group ranking is a common problem in any sport that has round-robin qualifying group matches before going into the sudden-death final rounds.
Should teams be allowed to deliberately lose for tactical reasons?
The obvious answer, based on general sporting principles, is no. In competitive tournaments, the popular sentiment is that people should always play to win. But it is not so simple. For example, take team sports like the NFL. Once a team has made it into the playoffs, they will often rest their best players for the last game or two of the regular season so as to avoid risk of injury. So they are essentially willing to lose those games, and often do, for tactical reasons. This is common and openly done but is it wrong?
It is also the case that when a team has an unbeatable lead, they will take out their best players or not try too hard to score to avoid embarrassing the opponent. This is a nice gesture but it does mean that they are deliberately holding back and not putting forth their best effort on every play. Is that wrong?
There are also suspicions that some weak teams in American football and basketball may be deliberately losing their last games of the season so that their season records become even worse, since the lower your team’s rank, the earlier you get to pick players in the draft for the following year. Is that wrong?
There is also the famous true story, often used in evolutionary theory as an example on how altruism develops, about four teams in the English soccer league who in 1977 were playing in two different matches on the last day of the regular season. (See The Selfish Gene (1989), Richard Dawkins, p. 223 for more details.) Depending on the results, one of three teams (out of the four playing in those two games) would be relegated to the lower division in the following year, an ignominy that all three wanted to avoid, and so they were all playing hard to win.
One match ended a few minutes before the other and the result was flashed on the scoreboard of the other match. Because of the result of the first match, the two teams on the field in the second match (the score of which was tied at the time) realized that if theirs ended with a tied score, they would both avoid relegation and the team in the first match would be the loser. Instantaneously, this match changed from a hard fought battle for victory to one in which both teams made no attempt whatsoever to score and simply passed the ball around aimlessly until time ran out. What is worse here is that this was not a unilateral tactical decision by one team but that these two teams were obviously colluding against the third team. Should they have been allowed to do that?
My own feeling is that it is too hard to ascertain motivations so one should allow individual athletes and teams to lose games for tactical reasons if they want to but maybe take a harder stance against collusion. Considering all the other problems present in highly competitive sports, such as cheating in all its forms, it is not the worst of offenses.