Like many people around the world, I was surprised (make that appalled) to hear the news about the Olympic badminton players, who had already qualified for the elimination round, tossing games in order to get easier opponents in the first round. But as I read more about it, my surprise turned to frustration—frustration at the failure of Badminton World Federation officials. They have failed their sport by not following one of the basic rules of running a business: don’t make a rule you won’t enforce, and enforce the rules you do make.
If this had been a first-time occurrence, I would be appalled at the audacity of the players (and maybe their coaches) for perpetrating such a stunt on the other teams, the spectators, the Olympics and the sport itself. But that’s not exactly the case here. Among many other news outlets, The Connecticut Post reported on comments by Indonesia's coach that indicate the practice has occurred repeatedly in the past: "Erick Thorir, head of the Indonesian squad commented to the AP: 'China has been doing this so many times and they never get sanctioned by the BWF. On the first game yesterday when China did it, the BWF didn't do anything. If the BWF do something on the first game and they say you are disqualified, it is a warning for everyone.'"
Players haven't been sanctioned for throwing matches in the past, so the expectation is they won't be sanctioned this time, either. End result: a stain on the sport and the reputations of all the individuals involved.
The BWF's problem is a perfect example of a problem many businesses grapple with today: how to set standards and what good are rules and standards you set if you don’t enforce them consistently. For instance, if you establish 9:00AM as the start of the workday, then expect people to arrive by 9:00. If they arrive at 9:15AM and you don’t say anything, not only will they continue to arrive later than 9:00AM, others will notice your lack of action or may follow suit, too.
It's equally important to establish consequences and then follow through with the consequences when the situation demands it. Be willing to dock the pay of workers who arrive late. Be willing to send someone home to change if they arrive not dressed to code. The rule will mean nothing if it’s not enforced or if it’s applied inconsistently or discriminatorily.
As a BWF official, the expectation must be that every match is played to win and that not playing to win will result in disqualification from the event. When the rule is first broken, apply the sanction immediately. And then repeatedly if necessary. By setting expectations, establishing consequences, and being willing to follow through, they could have avoided the mess their sport is in now.
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