Beijing Games: another shuttlecock-up

If putting your foot in it was an Olympic event, China would top the medals table

Column LAST UPDATED AT 19:10 ON Tue 25 Mar 2008

With less than five months to go until the Beijing Olympics, the head coach of China's badminton team has admitted to fixing a match at the 2004 Games in Athens, when he instructed a Chinese player to throw a crucial tie in order to help ensure China won the gold medal.

When the rest of the world is questioning China's legitimacy as the Olympic host, when riots are engulfing Tibet, when the planet's most celebrated film director Stephen Spielberg has quit his role as artistic director to the Games, and with the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony marred by anti-China protestors, the nation's badminton coach Li Yongbo (right) has chosen an indelicate moment to drop his bombshell. And yet he has shown no remorse. "It shows our patriotism and in fact I am proud of it," he bragged.

What Li Yongbo revealed this week is that when two Chinese players, Zhou Mi and Zhang Ning, were drawn together in the 2004 Olympic semi-final tie, Zhou was told by her coach "not to work too hard and let Zhang into the final" so that the "gold medal ends up in Chinese hands". In short, the coaching staff decided after watching them play one game which of the two players had the greater hope of going all the way, and ordered the other to throw the game. Zhou duly crashed out in straight sets, and her compatriot went on to take top spot on the podium as planned. She is expected to defend her title this year.

The coach's frank admission has reopened the debate over China's long tradition of placing national pride before sporting fair play, in direct contrast to the Olympic ideal of "openness, fairness and justice". In 1987, Chinese table tennis player He Zhili was ordered to throw a semi-final to team-mate Guan Jianhua at the World Table Tennis Championships. He Zhili refused and went on to win the women's singles final. Just one year later, she was left out of the Seoul Olympic team as punishment, even though she was rated number one in the world.

Infuriated by China's inability to let her play at her full capacity, He Zhili married a Japanese man, emigrated with him and joined Japan's national team. She had her revenge on her former coaches at the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima, knocking out Chinese heavyweights Qiao Hong, Chen Jing and Deng Yaping in a single day. He Zhili is regarded by many within China as a traitor to this day.

Zhou (far right, with Zhang Ning), meanwhile, who threw the badminton game in Athens on her coach's instructions, has since quit the Chinese team and moved to Hong Kong under the Quality Migrant Scheme. She is hoping to qualify to represent Hong Kong in badminton at this year's Beijing games. (Under the terms of China's takeover of Hong Kong in 1997, the former British territory was allowed to retain its own delegations in certain international arenas, including the Olympics, on condition that they call themselves 'Hong Kong, China'.)

Despite Li Yongbo's claim that he was being patriotic, Chinese sports enthusiasts are maddened by the gruff coach's revelation, just when the Olympic host does not need any more negative PR. One of many similar postings on the popular Chinese web portal reads, "Shame on you, Li Yongbo. We don't need gold medals won in this kind of fashion to fuel our national pride." ·