Wednesday, August 22, 2012


So where is that proverbial line in the sand when it comes to ethical behavior in sports? The Olympics it seems slipped from its traditional values to an almost farcical demonstration of athletes doing what they can to secure that elusive gold medal and all the fame that comes in tow. Scandals emerged that have us scratching our heads wondering whether to blame the athlete or the system – or both – and the old adage of “it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game” could not ring more untrue. Like some 2012 Olympians, the mantra was, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”.

Doping notwithstanding, since any athlete that feels the need for chemical assistance is truly a cheat and should be banned immediately for life from competing ever again, the issues arising from the London Olympics came from situations where the rules weren’t actually broken. So can you fault the athletes, who were there to win gold, for manipulating a system to their best advantage for victory?

We have all heard about the badminton fiasco. Multiple pairs trying their utmost to lose a round robin match for a preferable draw in the knock-out rounds. Hypothetically, faced with the same dilemma, if the reward for me to win a squash match in a tournament was to immediately play Ramy Ashour, as opposed to a much lower ranked player, but still be in the running to win the event, I doubt very much I would have thrown the match. Even though I would much rather lose to Ramy in the final than in the first round, I couldn’t stomach losing on purpose. The badminton player’s issue was their subtlety. There wasn’t any. It was clear what they were trying to do, but as professional players, they surely could have done a better job of acting like they were trying but just having a bad day at the office. But was the decision for them to be kicked out of the Games ridiculous? Yes, it was poor sportsmanship, but they didn’t break the rules. In fact, they were doing whatever it took to give them the best chance to win. Even if it meant losing. Blame the system? Then, organizers should have been sent home too.

And then there was the British cyclist in the team track event who admitted purposely crashing on the first bend because of a poor start in order to restart the race. The British team ended up winning the restarted race and the gold medal. That would be like me requesting a restart to a squash match because I have hit the first 3-4 return of serves into the tin. Clearly the cyclist didn’t break the rules – he also admitted it was a team strategy if that exact circumstance came up – since the restart was allowed. It sounds completely ludicrous – but again, the athlete was doing his best to win for his country – even if it meant crashing.

Swimming. The South African swimmer who won gold in the 100 breaststroke admitted cheating during the race by using an illegal dolphin kick. His excuse? “Everyone else is doing it”. Without the kick he says he most likely would not have won, and even after his admission, he gets to keep his medal. I suppose there isn’t much the IOC can do here, because is everybody is doing it, then they all should be disqualified. So changing the rules seems like a no brainer. But until then, it’s still cheating.

Soccer. In an eerily similar situation to the badminton debacle, the Japanese women’s soccer team was instructed by their coach not to win their final round robin match against South Africa, but play for the tie in order to get a favorable draw in the knock-out stage. They succeeded with a 0-0 score. Unlike the badminton debacle, the powers that be had no issue with this. Japan reached the final, but lost to the USA and received the silver medal. There are also reports that the Spanish basketball team deliberately lost to Brazil in their round-round match in order to avoid playing USA early in the knock-out draw. Spain eventually ended up with the silver medal – also losing to USA in the final.

Moral dilemmas. Apart from the South African swimmer, none of the above mentioned actually broke the rules. Athletes will search for any advantage they can find to give them that edge. If the system is designed for abuse, you can bet your bottom dollar it will be exploited. What did the IOC expect? The rules allow you to do ‘x’, just be a jolly nice chap and don’t do it? As righteously reprehensible as it is, can you really hold the athletes accountable? They still followed the rules.

So as squash players, are we constantly crossing over that honorable boundary? How often do you continue play after you know your ball has bounced twice, or clipped the red-line, or after a double hit? Should you immediately own up to it or wait for the referee to call it? How often do you ask for that ‘let’, knowing that there was no way in Hades you could have reached the ball? Increased the size of your backswing to fish for the ‘stroke’? Do you argue with the referee? Intimidate? Waste time? Tie that shoe lace up that suddenly comes undone when you are tired? Stretch that 90 second rest between games as far as possible? Are we trying the win with the help of bending the rules without quite breaking them? Are these acceptable tactics?

Let’s not kid ourselves. Anyone who answered ‘no’ to all the above questions is either completely oblivious to their own actions, or a liar. Under pressure, desperate times call for desperate measures and we can all hang our heads a little for actions less than honorable in stressful situations. However, where that principled edge lies definitely differs from person to person. What is seen as unethical by some may be considered perfectly legitimate by others.

And don’t forget that sports are as much a mind game as a physical one (if not more). Getting under your opponents skin, creating doubt, breaking their concentration, plays a huge part in success. We all know how hard it is to perform when your mind isn’t on the court. If all of this could be placed under the ‘mind-game strategy’, are they suddenly more acceptable?

It really comes down to one thing as far as I am concerned: self-respect. In the grand scheme of things, you play for one person only – yourself. You are the one person you cannot avoid living with 24/7, so you should probably have the need to feel good about yourself. Do you pride yourself on following the rules, being fair, but also busting a lung to win whenever you play? Would you much rather lose having played hard, than win under controversy? Everyone hates losing. And everyone loves wining. But does it need to come at a cost of your dignity or integrity?

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