LONDON (AP) — Eight badminton players at the London Olympics were kicked out of competition Wednesday for trying to lose — a display that drew outrage from fans and organizers who said the women had violated the most sacred stage in sports.
It appeared to be the first mass disqualification in Olympic history.
After an unexpected loss by a powerful Chinese doubles team, the eight women appeared to play poorly on purpose to secure a more favorable position in the next phase of the event.
The feeble play was obvious to fans who attended the matches Tuesday night at Wembley Arena — they chanted, "Off! Off! Off!" — and to incredulous television broadcasters and viewers watching around the world.
"They're serving fault and fault! They are just hitting the ball into the net!" the BBC's David Mercer said in disbelief. "They are both trying to lose, and that is unforgivable. This is the Olympic Games."
The eight players included four from South Korea, two from China and two from Indonesia. They were disqualified from competition but allowed to stay at the games — a step lighter than expulsion, the penalty for positive drug tests.
None of the players was made available for interviews. But after the match one of them, Yu Yang of China, said they were only trying to save energy for the knockout rounds, starting Wednesday.
In a statement released to the official Xinhua news agency, the Chinese Olympic delegation criticized its players' actions.
"The behavior by Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli on court violated the Olympics ideal and the spirit of fair play. The Chinese delegation feels distressed over this matter," the delegation said.
Xinhua also reported Chinese badminton coach Li Yongbo apologized and accepted blame for the scandal.
"As the head coach, I owe the fans and the Chinese an apology," Li said. "Chinese players failed to demonstrate their fighting spirit of the national team. It's me to blame."
The scandal was the talk of the sixth day of the Olympics, overshadowing a long-awaited first gold medal for the home country, secured at last by a pair of British rowers at Windsor.
Though the most serious to date, it's hardly been the only black eye.
On Monday, a South Korean fencer wept openly while judges took an hour to consider a disputed point, and on Tuesday, doping suspicions engulfed a teenage Chinese gold-medal swimmer.
For the most part, the blunders have been much smaller — unsightly empty seats on television, lost keys to Wembley Stadium, the South Korean flag flown instead of the North Korean at a soccer match.
Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London organizing committee, said the badminton scandal was "depressing."
"Who wants to sit through something like that?" he said.
Condemnation came quickly from some of the other 10,500 athletes, even from those who said they understood the strategy behind the decision to try to lose.
Serena Williams, who blistered a Russian opponent at Wimbledon on Wednesday to reach the Olympic quarterfinals, said she understood trying to throw points in practice, "but never, never, never in competition."
"This is definitely not within the Olympic spirit," said Lin Dan of China, the defending Olympic men's singles badminton champion.
A player on the Indonesian men's badminton team, Taufik Hidayat, called it a "circus match."
"I'm happy. I know I'm from Indonesia and the ladies' doubles are from Indonesia, but it's for the sport," he said. "It's not sporting."
For the badminton players, the moral question was somewhat more complex. Badminton was introduced at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, but this is the first time it has included a round-robin format before win-or-go-home tournament play.
The chain of manipulation was set in motion when a team from Denmark unexpectedly beat the second-seeded team in the tournament, from China. By all accounts, that match was decided fairly.
The loss put the Chinese team on course to face their compatriots, world doubles champions Wang Xiaoli and Yu, in the semifinals, not the finals, as expected.
Wang and Yu then set out to lose so they would go into the bottom half of the draw. They hardly exerted themselves — and neither did their opponents, the South Koreans, drawing jeers from the crowd and warnings from the umpire.
Wang and Yu ultimately proved better at losing.
Later, the other South Korean team tried to lose, this time to the Indonesians, to avoid meeting Wang and Yu in the quarterfinals. The Indonesians apparently had the same idea.
Early in that match, all four players were warned by the umpire for not trying hard, and the umpire later produced black cards to disqualify both pairs, but the cards were rescinded on a promise of better play.
The Indonesians ultimately succeeded at losing, and the South Koreans fell into the playoff they did not want with the world champions.
By midday Wednesday, the Badminton World Federation, the governing body of the sport, had disqualified all eight players from competing at the games. The federation rejected an appeal from South Korea. Indonesia withdrew an appeal.
The eight are Wang and Yu of China; the four South Koreans, Jung Kyun-eun, Kim Ha-na, Ha Jung-eun and Kim Min-jung; and Meiliana Jauhari and Greysia Polii of Indonesia.
They were punished by the federation for "not using one's best efforts to win a match" and "conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport."
The president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, told The Associated Press that the IOC could take the additional step of expelling the athletes. It would mean stripping the players of their credentials and kicking them out of the athletes village. Rogge said he would wait to see what action the national Olympic committees would take.
"The international federation took the right action in disqualifying the athletes and definitely that was the way to go," Rogge said.
Craig Reedie, an IOC vice president who is also the former head of the badminton federation, had a stronger response. He suggested the athletes had taken action that undermined sport itself.
"If you lose the competitive element, then the whole thing becomes a nonsense," he told the AP.
London organizers sold tickets to the Tuesday badminton events for 20 to 75 pounds, or $31 to $117. They said they had no plans to refund money to fans and had not received requests to do so.
"You get into all sorts of strange precedents if people aren't satisfied with what they see," said Paul Deighton, chief executive of the London Olympic organizing committee.
Lin, the Chinese singles badminton player, criticized the introduction of the round-robin format rather than a straight knockout tournament as the main cause of the problem.
"If you are in a group situation no one would want to meet strong competitors in the first few rounds," Lin said. "It's not their fault. Whoever set this rule should take this into consideration."
In Olympic beach volleyball, the competition was changed after the 2000 Sydney Games from a double-elimination tournament to a round-robin format followed by a single-elimination tournament to minimize the potential for deceit.
"Players are happy, because they know nobody can manipulate or cheat," said Angelo Squeo, events director for the sport's governing federation. "I think not trying in badminton, the players should not be blamed. It's a system that has to be discussed."
The Danish players who won the badminton match that set up the sequence of events said they had seen Chinese players lose on purpose many times — it was just that they had been better at acting the other times.
"I think they have done a lot by disqualifying them here," said Kamilla Rytter Juhl, who plays doubles with Christinna Pedersen. "I didn't think anything would happen about it."
The leader of the Indonesian Olympic team also said China had done it many times. India also accused a Japanese doubles pair of trying to throw a match on Tuesday, but those claims were rejected by badminton's governing body.
The competition continued Wednesday with four previously eliminated teams in the quarterfinals. Those teams were from Russia, Canada, Australia and South Africa.
In China, an online commentary from the state-run Xinhua News Agency was critical of the players and said what they had done "violates the spirit and ethics of sports" and does not respect the audience.
Ren Dao, who was playing an afternoon match with colleagues in Beijing, went a step further.
"This is definitely against the Olympic spirit," he said.
Stephen Wilson and Gerald Imray in London, and Gillian Wong in Beijing contributed to this report.