Triple Crown Leadership

Triple Crown Leadership

Ethics and the Olympic Badminton Brouhaha

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What injustice! How unfair! World-class athletes disqualified from the Olympics even though they were within the rules.

Think again.

The Badminton World Federation got it right when it disqualified eight women’s doubles players for purposefully throwing matches in order to face easier opponents in the round-robin tournament. (For background on this Olympic badminton controversy, click here.)

The Olympic Games are not just about winning gold. They’re not just about fierce competition. They’re not just about personal and national glory.

They’re also about excellence. And ethics. And endurance. (We call it the Triple Crown.)

Consider the Olympian Pledge from days of old:

“Ask not alone for victory. Ask for courage. For if you can endure, you bring honor to yourself. Even more, you bring honor to us all.”

Consider the Olympic Oath that all athletes agree to when they take part in the games:

“In the name of all the competitors I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams.”

The players were punished 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.” Throwing matches. Manipulating the draw.

There are easy ways to rationalize it. Technically, these players broke no formal rules, and they have put in years of grueling, meticulous training. Olympic athletes push themselves incredibly hard, doing their best to win.

But not at all costs.

It’s not just about you and your quest for glory. It’s not just about racking up your country’s medal count.

“The moment of victory is much too short
to live for that and nothing else.”
-Martina Navratilova

As an Olympic athlete, you must honor the great sacrifices that all competitors have made. You must honor the sport, and the Games, and the fans who came to see the world’s best competing at their best.

The Olympic quest is a quest for victory. But it’s also a quest for excellence, with honor, that stands the test of time.

The Olympic spirit doesn’t “game” matches and throw points to gain access to an easier path to the podium. It stays within the rules only as a starting point. It seeks a higher standard—not of perfection, but one that insists on victory with honor or no victory at all.

This lesson is for us all. As we wrote in our book, “triple crown leaders do not compromise on the ethical imperative…. Better to fail with honour than succeed with disgrace.” What if the traders at Lehman Brothers stopped to think about their actions (also within the rules and the law)? The people at Penn State who covered up terrible crimes and abuse to try to maintain the reputation of a football program?

As we watch the athletes compete in London, we should all ask: Is it just about the medals? Or something bigger, and much more valuable?

To the disqualified players, we say this: Don’t quit the sport. Listen to what this experience is teaching you—and come back wiser and stronger.

“Every time a football player goes out to ply his trade he’s got to play from the ground up—from the soles of his feet right up to his head.  Every inch of him has to play.  Some guys play with their heads. That’s O.K. You’ve got be smart to be No. 1 in any business.  But more important, you’ve got to play with your heart—with every fiber of your body. If you’re lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he’s never going to come off the field second.”
-Vince Lombardi

Bob and Gregg Vanourek are the authors of the new book, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (McGraw-Hill). Web: http://triplecrownleadership.com/  Twitter: @TripleCrownLead


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4 thoughts on “Ethics and the Olympic Badminton Brouhaha

  1. There is always a certain gap between the bare bones of what the rules say and what they intend, between the letter and the spirit of the law. This gap is a dangerous and contentious zone, primarily because it is within this zone that we must appeal to the higher, more nebulous concept of values. The rules lay out what we all agree to be clearly intolerable. When we enforce concepts not within the rules, we inject uncertainty into our dealings with others, which is what the rules are there to avoid. And yet values, something we prize more than rules, live precisely in that uncertain penumbra beyond the bright lines of rules, and success in any given situation depends on understanding the values and working with them. The failure of the Chinese badminton players was not in abandoning ethics – one can well imagine, if not necessarily agree, that they considered themselves bound by a certain ethic to do anything “within the rules” to win on behalf of their country – but in failing to move beyond rules and understand the values of the context in which they were operating. They missed the big picture, the broadly shared values on which the Olympics were founded. As you say, one hopes they will learn and grow – not necessarily to embrace this or that particular set of values, but to learn that sensitivity to the values of the community in which you are operating is a crucial ingredient in cooperation, achievement and leadership.

    • Greg, thanks for your thoughtful and articulate response. We couldn’t agree with you more.

      Thanks also for clarifying the distinction between ethics and values. Think of all the progress we could make if we could deepen our moral wisdom and advance our moral reasoning capacities, including addressing complicated questions about ethics and values.

      Values can, indeed, be nebulous. Sometimes they are in conflict. Often, the best result comes from participants discussing how some gray area fits with the shared values of the group. This discussion keeps the values alive and demonstrates how a values discussion around a gray decision-area can have different interpretations.

      Indeed, values live in “that uncertain penumbra” beyond the rules, as you say. True “success” here is gained with integrity and considers an appropriate time horizon (e.g., not sacrificing long-term priorities for short-term boosts). Sensitivity to and a commitment to the shared values of your group are essential to our concept of triple crown leadership. –Bob and Gregg

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