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Smithson: Working hard, or hardly working?

The summer Olympics are finally over and the four-year period of hand-wringing over Canadian medal results has just begun.

Amidst all the drama, the achievements, the failures and the medals of various colours, the aspect of London 2012 which stood out in my mind was the controversy over athletes not trying hard enough.

The whole saga kicked off with eight doubles badminton players being disqualified and sent home.  Their offence was intentionally losing a match.

The athletes, from China, South Korea and Indonesia appeared to be trying to manipulate the draw by intentionally losing.

Apparently doing so was perceived by them as having the likely result of allowing them to avoid a more powerful Chinese team in the following round.

London’s Daily Record described what happened.

Top seeds Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang of China tried to engineer defeat against Korea’s Jung Kyung-eun and Kim Ha-na. This meant they would avoid finishing top of their group and going into the same half of the draw as their compatriots.

But the Koreans responded by trying to lose themselves—to the fury of organizers and fans.  Spectators jeered as serves were deliberately hit into the net and shots hit wide, forcing referee Thorsten Berg to warn the players.

A second Korean pair, Ha Jung-eun and Kim Min-jung, then failed to play properly against Indonesia whose players—Meiliana Jauhari and Greysia Polii—also became involved.

Badminton’s governing body charged the eight athletes with “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is abusive or detrimental to the sport.”

One team’s coach blamed China for triggering the whole farce, saying: “The Chinese started this. They didn’t want to meet each other in the semis.”  Ah, yes, the well-worn, but rarely successful, defence of ‘They started it!’

While the antics of the badminton players were undoubtedly embarrassing to their sport and their nations, not trying hard isn’t exactly unprecedented in the Olympics.

Anyone who has watched the qualifying heats in sports from swimming to sprinting knows full well that the top athletes routinely cruise through qualifying, saving themselves for the final.

I watched Usain Bolt have a relaxing jog through the men’s 200 metre sprint qualifying.  He was, quite noticeably, not going as fast as he was capable.

And who could blame him?  Why risk pulling up lame in a qualifier when all that counts is a medal (gold, in his case)?  As a side note, I felt a little badly for the poor guys well behind him who were obviously running for all they were worth.

The same is true for many Olympic sports in which a large field is whittled down to a few medal finalists. Does anyone truly think that the USA men’s basketball team did its absolute best in every minute of every game it played?

And, what about the greatest “don’t work too hard” Olympic sport of them all, race walking?  That’s a sport in which the entire point is to not go as fast as one can. It’s beyond me how this goofy activity ever found its way into the Olympics.

One online source describes race walking in this way: “Few objects in Olympic track and field are more scrutinized than race walkers’ legs and feet. Sharp-eyed race walking officials are constantly looking out for “lifting” violations, i.e., walkers who cross the line into running.”

We definitely wouldn’t want to encourage running.  It’s only the Olympics, after all.

But really, could any of us live up to the pressure to give it our all at work, every minute, every day?  Sure, we all feel that we work hard and that we are doing our “best” to produce the desired results.

But nobody and I really mean nobody, can give 100 per cent of himself or herself 100 per cent of the time. Most of us, though, are a little better at disguising our 75 per cent moments than were the Olympic badminton players.

Maybe their real offence was doing it in such a blatant, shameless fashion, ensuring they would be caught and made an example for other would-be slacker competitors. They’ve now got four years to perfect their ‘I’m trying without really trying’ technique.

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