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Lose Lose

Friday, December 30, 2016 - 04:00 AM

(Photo Credit: Mathieum_M/Flickr)
No matter what sport you play, the object of the game is to win. And that’s hard enough to do. But we found a match where four top athletes had to do the opposite in one of the most high profile matches of their careers. Thanks to a quirk in the tournament rules, their best shot at winning was … to lose. 

This episode, we scrutinize the most paradoxical and upside down badminton match of all time, a match that dumbfounded spectators, officials, and even the players themselves. And it got us to wondering …  what would sports look like if everyone played to lose?

Reported by Latif Nasser. Produced by Matt Kielty and Annie McEwen and Latif Nasser.

Special thanks to Aparna Nancherla, Mark Phelan, Yuni Kartika, Greysia Polii, Joy Le Li, Mikyoung Kim, Stan Bischof, Vincent Liew, Kota Morikowa, Christ de Roij and Haeryun Kang.

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Torsten Berg, Ha-na Kim, Chuck Klosterman, Mike Pesca, Xiaoli Wang and Yang Yu


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Comments [40]

Greg from Boston

Hey just want to point out south park actually did this for the baseball example where they are trying to lose. in the episode the boys find baseball so boring that they try to lose so they don't advanced in a baseball tournament, but every other kids team also is trying to do the same, so the boys in south park practice to be the worst so they can lose better than the other kids.

May. 17 2017 12:28 PM
Nathan Palo from Denver Colorado

The crowds reaction and the disqualification here pissed me off, and especially the commentators calling them a disgrace. This is a failure of tournament design, not a failure of sportsmanship. I have an undergraduate degree in game design, and one of the things we learned was that it is our responsibility as designers to avoid pitfalls like this. It isn't easy, but when we fail, it isn't the players fault.

There is a pretty easy ad-hoc fix to the situation, the referee could pause the game, consult the governing authorities, and decide to restart the match with the condition being that the team that wins gets to choose which slot they advance into.

This could also be prevented in a number of ways, by keeping players blind to the results of other games (though that may be impractical), or by allowing the top half of teams in each new round get to choose which of the bottom qualifying teams to play for the next round, with the highest ranked qualifiers choosing first.

Disqualifying players for giving their best effort to win the tournament is a disgrace. I can forgive the crowd, they came to see a match, and didn't get one, and most probably didn't know why they were trying to lose, but knowing what is going on, the obvious problem is with the tournament organizers.

Apr. 06 2017 01:23 PM

''they tried very hard to lose :))

Mar. 27 2017 09:37 PM

If I were that referee in that match, I would have said "whoever wins the match gets to pick which slot they get in the next round." Problem solved. Probably you can't change rules like that, but at least the teams would have played the game.

Mar. 20 2017 09:02 PM
Roy from Toronto

Would anyone happen to know the name of the music playing at 21:52?

Feb. 03 2017 11:48 AM
Eric from Radford, VA

This reminded me of the 1994 Caribbean Cup qualification match between Barbados and Grenada. Prior to the match, Barbados had lost 1-0 to Puerto Rico and Grenada had beaten Puerto Rico 2-0 so that in the final match, Grenada would win the group with a win, a draw, or a loss by only 1 goal, but Barbados would win the group with a win by 2 or more goals.

Barbados score two early goals to put themselves in position to advance, but Grenada scored in the 83rd minute to make it 2-1. Grenada fell back into a defend their one-goal loss that would make them advance.

After four minutes of trying to penetrate the Grenadian wall, Barbados switched to a different tactic. In this tournament, a golden goal in sudden death extra time counted as two goals for goal differential. Barbados realized that it would be easier to score in open play in extra time, and so they used an intentional own goal in the 87th minute to tie the game.

However, there was something they did not account for: Grenada could now advance by either scoring a goal themselves or giving Barbados an intentional own goal. This meant that Barbados had to defend both goals for the final three minutes! Barbados held on and got their golden goal for an effective 4-2 win to advance to the next round.

Feb. 02 2017 11:06 AM

Very intresting can you read harry potter

Jan. 28 2017 12:02 PM
Soundboy from Los Angeles, CA.

An example of losing in a creative and hilarious way, would be the work of Jonathan and Darleen Edwards. The Edwards were the made up personas of Paul Weston and Jo Stafford, a married couple who were incredibly accomplished musicians. They were often asked to play at the parties they attended, and soon grew tired of having to perform, so as a lark, they started to perform intentionally bad renditions of popular songs. It didn't turn out as intended. Now the requests were for the brilliant parody of a badly performing musical duo. This was the birth of Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, the worst musical act in show biz. They recorded albums, and still had to perform at parties.

Jan. 27 2017 07:21 PM

Anyone else having an issue with the end of the podcast playing?

Jan. 27 2017 08:26 AM
Veronica from California

You need to look into both countries sport system and relationship to its government. Then you would know that this is not a players choice, so when you are criticizing the players and mock their accent by having these ridiculous sounding naration talking to your Western audience, get the facts straight before you start deliver "facts" to your audiences. They basically lose most their lifetime income when they miss a chance to get gold in those olympics games and going against department direction will cause them to be fired.

Jan. 25 2017 02:05 AM
Rex Henry from Greensboro, NC

A similar situation, known as the Disgrace of Gijón, occurred in the 1982 FIFA World Cup when both teams found a way for each to advance. This is why the final games of play-in round are now played simultaneously.

Jan. 19 2017 03:21 PM
Mike Kinsella from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

"American Football"

Jan. 17 2017 01:19 PM
Matthew from Wisconsin

It would be very interesting if in a basketball game to teams were trying to lose. I think the best way to try and lose would be to score on your own basket. However the opposing team would not want you to do this so they would defend you and try and prevent you from scoring on your own basket. This would then happen when the other team got the ball, except they were scoring on their basket.

So the game would almost be the same except the direction the teams were going on the court would be opposite. Also whenever you would successfully score on your own basket you would get to inbound the ball under your own basket, so the game would be some weird game of make-it take-it basketball where the ball starts under the basket after each score.

Sounds like it could be a real game.

Jan. 16 2017 11:54 AM
Michelle from Alaska

My family loves board games and about a year ago we got a new game that for some reason I was particularly good at. The others had a hard time visualizing the right strategies and I won easily every time--and by huge point margins.

My family was admiring and gracious at first but after I kept winning game after game (and the winner always gets to record their name, the date, and their winning score on inside of the box lid) they began to grumble and complain about how it wasn't fun any more when they didn't stand a chance. I realized that if the others didn't begin winning a few games, if I didn't throw them some kind of a bone, they'd hate to play with me and I'd never get a chance at what was now my favorite board game.

They could tell if I didn't give a game my best effort--and they did NOT want a "pity win"--so it was hard to throw the game without them realizing it. Out of boredomI had what I thought was a great idea: instead of accumulating the most points, I would try to zero out and get rid of all my assets and points. It was fun trying to secretly work in reverse until the end of the game when each player's points were revealed and they realized what I'd done, having effectively negated the win they thought they'd finally earned. I've never seen such fury around the kitchen table and I learned my lesson well.

It was months before they'd agree to play with me again, but by then they'd all caught on to the strategy and now I legitimately lose regularly and everyone's happy.

Jan. 13 2017 06:24 PM
Kim Ha Na from South Korea

They should have all been pardoned and gotten back into the tournement. Its the rules fault, not theirs. They just wanted to win for there country. Sorry for bad English, not a native speaker

Jan. 12 2017 11:30 AM
Brad from Boca Raton

Yes, having the winner get the choice of their next round opponent is the obvious answer and I was surprised it wasn't mentioned on the show. However, that could be unfair to the best team in the tournament (who these teams are trying to avoid), since if anyone should have a choice, it should be them. This special rule could only be enacted in special circumstances like this one, and not in a general tournament bracket.
Also, neither of these teams would get the gold if they can't beat the best team, but the outcome of this game could mean the difference between silver and bronze.
You can also see something like this in the World Cup, but in that case they'll play the two games at the same time so you don't know the result of the other game before yours.

Jan. 12 2017 08:39 AM
Hiram Claytor from Norcross GA

I Think the main point is being missed: Sports are played for the entertainment of the player and spectator. Professional sports are more for the enjoyment of the fans than anything else. It's unfortunate that in this case the two teams did not take the spectators into consideration. It may have been the most competitive game they play in the tournament if they had chosen to compete against each other.

Jan. 11 2017 03:13 PM
Kai from Singapore

Hey guys, amazing amazing work. Thanks so much for what you do. Look forward to the moment I can get some down time to listen to your podcast and relax quietly in private.

Just saw this post on Facebook and reminded me of 'Lose Lose'. Enjoy!


Jan. 10 2017 08:34 PM
mike from Canada

Qill from Colombia said it earlier in the comments:
"One way to fix this is to make the winning team pick between the next opponents."

Another way to solve this is to allow the referee draw a different card, one that allows them to change the rules, if this kind of strategizing is suspected:

Rule change: the winning team does NOT get to play the team that is being avoided (which becomes obvious once this kind of thing starts to happen).

The benefit: the audience gets an awesome game, and the strategy is defeated, without punishing the players for trying to maximize their outcome, aside from judgment on sportsmanship. Because stakeholders are plenty in the outcome, it is the strategy that must be targeted.

Jan. 10 2017 07:20 AM
Matthew from florida

Speaking of chess, ya'll should check out loser's chess, a very enjoyable and complex game with thick strategy. If you can take a piece you have to. The first person to get checkmated, stalemated or lose all their pieces wins. I heard it is a solvable game, so don't play against a computer, or at least not a smart one.

Jan. 09 2017 05:47 PM
Cartman from SoDoSoPa

If both teams so obviously want to lose (which reflects more on the designers of the tournament than the players), why not simply have the players switch sides, since who the points are awarded to is arbitrary, and one team's points count against the other team, rather than for them? Like the horse race at the end. Just seems like a failure of imagination on the judge's part.

Jan. 08 2017 07:01 PM

Loved this episode! Can't wait for more :)

If the winners played a random team instead of the better team this could've been avoided. Oh well. Maybe next time they can just do a quick tweaking of the rules.

Jan. 06 2017 06:52 PM
Mario Lewis from Brooklyn Ny

You realize there's an entire South Park Episode that deals with the idea of losing on purpose its called "The Losing Edge".... and its fantastic!

Jan. 04 2017 05:10 PM
BVarone from San Francisco

Ethical but not honorable.

Jan. 04 2017 01:24 PM
Harry from Yer ma

The winning team should always play the weaker
In the next round.

Jan. 03 2017 04:58 PM
Steyn Viljoen from Cape Town

What a great episode and comments so far! Thanks everyone.

Here's how I see it: Trying to lose so you don't have to play the strongest team in the finals isn't a good reflection of what true sportmanship is about: you play to win because you have the courage and confidence to do so.

Disqualifying the team was actually a perfect choice; not only from a rule-book perspective, but also from a sportmanship perspective. Neither team deserved to have won since neither team showed the courage and confidence to play the strongest team.

It doesnt solve the problem but it does touch on the ethical side of it.

At least that's how I see it.

Steyn from Cape Town

Jan. 03 2017 12:38 PM

I had a physiology teacher in high school who recognized the difficulty of losing on purpose. Every year he would put out a challenge. If anyone got every answer on a test wrong, they would get 100%. If they accidentally got one question right they would fail. In order to do this u would have to know the material well enough to know for sure which answers were not right. Last I checked no one has taken him up on his offer.

Jan. 02 2017 02:03 PM
Kai Sosceles from Oakland, CA


The analogy of using love vs. hate in marriage is pretty bad. The piano player is a closer analogy. But might I suggest perhaps something even closer to this?

Have you ever watched a movie where one of the actors plays a /bad/ actor? It's insanely difficult to do this as a trained artist. It's one of the many pinnacles of greatness in an actor's toolbox and is a skill to be respected. This is what the Chinese and Koreans were doing on this match, especially in the "third tier." At that level, in that arena, with those stakes and both teams playing the same game to undermine the other, I'd argue that the game to /lose/ is just as difficult if not moreso than playing the game to win. Bravo to those players and for everyone who boo'd, you just might need to expand your definition of what the game you're watching really is, because if you think it's just a shuttlecock being hit back and forth, you're missing out.

Jan. 02 2017 02:15 AM
Malcolm Maclachlan from Sacramento, CA

My father used the losing strategy to win a state soccer championship 30 years ago. He was coaching a very good but not very deep under-14 boys team. It was a double elimination tournament that split into winners and losers brackets after each team had played their first game.

He looked at the first opponent, saw they were a powerhouse, and decided to forfeit. Then his team cleaned up the losers bracket for the next couple games while the best teams beat up on each other, went into the final rounds fresh, and won the whole thing with zero margin for error.

The other coaches got very angry, but he pointed out there was nothing in the rules against what he did. I should probably mention my dad was a college professor who taught economic anthropology and has a fairly advanced understanding of statistics.

I played in that same tournament a year or two later. They changed the format and added a no forfeit rule, as I remember.

Jan. 01 2017 05:38 PM
brian from minnesota

i was a little surprised you didn't get into the basketball side of this that seems to be an issue. (i, personally, can't stand watching the sport for a second) there seems to be an ongoing issue with the better teams in the league sitting their best players sparatically throughout the year to give them rest. paying fans at the games get upset that they paid to see these high-end players, while the coaches argue that they are more concerned with the big end prize of winning the championship. basically the same thing to me as the olympics. maybe more complicated by the players association. i guess what side you are on depends on if you think that the winner is most important or whether the fan/consumer experience is most important. on one hand they are competitors, otherwise they are entertainers. it can not be completely both

Jan. 01 2017 04:49 AM
Qill from Colombia

One way to fix this is to make the winning team pick between the next opponents.

Dec. 31 2016 09:36 PM
Gary Counsil from Chile

One evening years ago, when I lived in Seoul, South Korea, I attended an exhibition tennis match featuring McEnroe and Agassi. They played three close sets redolent with marvelous shot making extended rallies, deft volleys, and passing shots that clipped the lines--and you know neither man was capable of tanking, but nor could they play full tilt. Late in the third something else took over. Mac questioned line calls, handled his racket like a tooth pick at net, and Agassi dialed up his ground game. Agassi won 7-5. So how is it that very early in the match these players--knowing consequences--didn't go ahead and play it out? Where was their competive spirit? Where was that something?

Dec. 31 2016 06:17 PM
Nancy Graham from Hudson Valley, New York


I don't know much about sports, but it seems to me the giant hole at the center of this story relates to the moment one player locked eyes with her coach. The rest of the piece proceeds as if the players have total agency and the coaches had nothing to do with the intention of losing. I find it exceedingly odd that the story ignored this angle. How would an athlete refusing to play by the coach's directives be treated on her team?

Secondly, I'm glad someone brought up bicycle racing, where a popular event called "Devil Take the Foremost" is the reverse of "Devil Take the Hindmost." In the "Foremost" version, the cyclist to cross the line first is eliminated. Cyclists apply their skill to moving quickly enough to remain upright and slowly enough not to be the first to cross the finish line.

Fascinating story, and having the competition and goals of play topsy-turvy struck me as more fun and subversive than shameful.

Dec. 31 2016 08:26 AM

I really hope the donation and pledge asking doesn't go on for too many more episodes. I can deal with like 5 or so but it's coming off a little obnoxious and yes, I understand it's necessary and it funds the show. I get that, but it doens't mean I want to hear it for 1 minute and half at the beginning of every episode or various times throughout it. I'm hoping it's just because it's the end of the year and this is just a thing that happens, sort of like the 1-2 months Wikipedia asks for donations on every page, it's obnoxious but necessary.

A simple donate before and at the end would be sufficient if this is to be in all future episodes.

Dec. 31 2016 07:18 AM
Rob from Richmond, VA

What they should do is calculate when that sort of game in a badminton tournament exists and simply switch the scoring system such that your points are scored for the opposing team.

Dec. 30 2016 06:25 PM
Matthew Niederberger from New Jersey

Radiolab, if you ever take a look at this question from a different angle, take a look at the sport of bicycle sprints. You would think it would be a fast race, but racers realized that you want to be in second early for the draft advantage to spend less effort. The first part of a bicycle sprint is spent with both racers going slowly, often times completely still, jockeying for second place and attempting to get their opponent to pass them. The real race begins when either racer decides to make a break for it. If you break too early, you end up giving your opponent the advantage, and if you break too late, you end up trying to catch up to an opponent who is already too close to the finish for you to catch.

Dec. 30 2016 05:44 PM

Folks, I'm doing this every time I play chess, out of the purity of my good heart.

Dec. 30 2016 05:08 PM
Todd from Missouri

If you are wondering how this idea of trying to lose in baseball would work, watch South Park. The little league teams are made to play by their parents and none of the kids actually want to play. So they get good at losing so they can get out of the tournament sooner rather than later. And by playing more and more, they get better at being bad, which is a skill in it's self. Ultimately the two worst teams at losing end up in the championship of an upside down sport.

Dec. 30 2016 03:27 PM
Bill Jefferys from Vermont

There is an obvious fix to the Badminton rules that would completely eliminate this problem.

Simply decide, after the semifinals (or quarter finals, whatever) which team plays which team by a coin toss.

There would be no incentive to lose in this case since neither team would be able to know in advance the outcome of the coin toss (which is in the future).

Dec. 30 2016 02:07 PM

I think players were punished unfairly, because it was all rule-makers fault.

Dec. 30 2016 12:44 PM

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