What Will We Lose to Win?

2012 Badminton
Winning by Losing

Sometimes, losing is the best strategy for winning.  And ethics be damned.  Radiolab, a podcast I recommend, has happily remediated me on the matter of the Chinese-Korean badminton match in the 2012 OIympic Games in London, which both teams tried very hard, shamefully hard, to lose.

Here’s one look at the ‘competition’ in which the boos and jeers of the crowd are evident.  Here’s a briefer version in which the broadcast commentators let the so-called athletes have it.

The Radiolab commentary considers the ethics of sport, and puts forward a theory that I understand. If a badminton team’s goal is winning an Olympic medal, and if that goal is best served by losing a particular match, then a team is not necessarily undermining the spirit of genuine competition that Olympic athletes take an honest-to-goodness oath to sustain.  The deliberate loss is simply a piece of a bigger, competitive strategy for winning.

I understand that reasoning.

The justifications of the lose-lose strategy rest on the medal.  When the facing teams are both trying to win a medal, and, hence, when both are trying to lose to the other team so as to improve the chance of a winning a medal, the awesome farce that ensues is, itself, a kind of authentic, cutthroat competition.

I understand that reasoning.  I just don’t accept it.

In the pleasant, late-eighties movie Midnight Run, bounty hunter Robert DeNiro undertakes to deliver Charles Grodin to the West Coast in time to collect a bounty large enough to facilitate getting out of the bounty business, altogether.  Desperate to escape the death at the hands of gangsters that awaits him in California, Grodin spends the movie alternating between appeals to DeNiro’s moral compass and appeals to his financial interests.  In the end, DeNiro gets Grodin to Los Angeles in time, and turns Grodin loose, anyway.  Free, finally, to run, Grodin offers DeNiro $300,000 in cash that Grodin just happens to be wearing.

“It’s not a bribe,” Grodin says. “You already let me go.”

The awards that follow competition surely must follow competition.  The ethics of sport that would condemn intentional losing are rooted in the sense that the playing is the most important thing.  In the arena of play, human beings encounter each other, engage each other as fellow human beings, and acknowledge each other as beings of human value.  The competition, itself, is a way of declaring to everyone—participants and observers—that humanity in its every manifestation is great and grand.  Identity, integrity, basic human goodness, are implicated in the way in which we exhibit respect for ourselves and for each other in the arena of play.

That kind of thing deserves a medal.

But when the medal itself is the object, when the medal becomes an integral part of the competition, the medal supplants humanity as the thing of value.  The medal dehumanizes competitors, makes them into means for each other, and, thus, provides a lock-tight rationale for doing everything, anything, for the medal’s sake.

Consequently, medals turn out not only Simone Bileses and Usain Bolts, but also Lance Armstrongs and Rosie Ruizes.

The wrongness of intentionally losing in order to win has implications far beyond sport.

In politics, it’s the interest in medalling that has propelled a sack of trash to the Offal Office.  It’s the interest in a medal—the mansion above, the celestial crown—that charges religion with so much hatred and ugliness.

When heaven is the object, when heaven becomes an integral part of the play of living, it erases the humanity of all the people who are playing, and gives us a reason to treat each other as the means whereby we can claim our reward.  When a heavenly reward is the ultimate goal, we can strategize our behavior and justify a little sin.*  When the reward is the aim, those people, over there, on the other side of the net, are not real people whose irreducible value demands respect and deserves love that we can manifest only by forthright contact.  They are, instead—the athletes, the officials, the spectators, our family, friends, neighbors and strangers—only objects on which to place our feet.

That’s the disgrace of the China-Korea badminton disaster.  That’s the explanation of the boos and whistles in the London arena.  That more-or-less incidental athletic competition helps us see what we so hate about cheaters, or, if we must, what we so hate about folks who seem determined to ‘game the system’.

We boo and jeer the attempt to cheapen human identity in pursuit of some piece of metal.  Where playing can show us the infinite worth of human identity, each such gaming-of-the-system, in sport, religion, politics, and in life, dehumanizes everyone, reducing the value of humanity to the extent to which it wins.

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* We can, for instance, accept a $120,000/year stipend for pastoral service while enjoining the penniless to tithe their meager means at a full tenth.  The promise of a heavenly medal reduces the humanity of the penniless to the means by which a $120,000/year stipend can be paid.  We can also tutor missionaries abroad in the art of evading customs and immigration officials, because, after all, such officials aren’t fellow humans, but obstacles to circumvent on the way to generating the numbers that merit a reward.

**Image adapted from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Badminton_IMG_2589.jpg

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