Late last week, it emerged that Lee Chong Wei, the world's top badminton player, failed a drug test. A niche sport in the United States, badminton has been part of the Olympics since 1992 and enjoys huge popularity in Asia. Lee is the sport's Novak Djokovic, a truly dominant force over the past several years. He's the best player Malaysia, one of the world's most badminton-mad countries, has ever produced. A two-time Olympic silver-medal winner, Lee is, or was, a favorite for gold in Rio de Janeiro; he faces a two year ban and could miss the Olympics entirely.
But Lee's drug test isn't notable simply because sports fans can't look away when a giant teeters and falls; it's notable because the incident is one of many scandals to hit badminton over the past year. On current form, badminton might be the world's most corrupt sport.
In June, during the Japan Open, two Danish players were approached and offered north of 2,500 Euros to fix matches. The alleged fixer was Malaysian. The two players, Kim Astrup Sorenson and Hans Kristian Vittinghus, both reported the incident to authorities. 2,500 Euros might not be a lot of money, but the implications are huge. Vittinghus is the world's 10th ranked singles player. If people are trying to flip a top-ten athlete, what's happening lower down the pyramid?
In June, France's Le Express ran an expose on the problem, noting that match fixing is especially rife in the sport's semi-pro and college ranks. At this level, players can make a few hundred dollars with a deep tournament run or a few thousand with a planned early exit. The betting is carried out mostly online, which makes it incredibly difficult to police. Since 2010, ARJEL, a French online-gambling watchdog, has blocked 65 gambling websites from operating in France, but it's a low-stakes game for the bookies. If you know what you're doing, moving a website to a different domain isn't a whole lot more difficult than checking your email.
All of the above amounts to huge embarrassment for the Badminton World Federation (BWF), the sport's governing body, which is based in Kuala Lumpur. You can bet the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is paying close attention as well.
"The integrity of the games is the most important thing," said Mark Adams, the IOC's communications director, during the Sochi games. "Betting is one of those things which threatens the integrity of sport even more than doping, in some senses."
If there's any good news here, it's that these incidents happened now rather than, say, this time next year. The drug Lee tested positive for is dexamethasone, an anti-inflammatory. Assuming he doesn't receive a maximum ban (he claims innocence), he could be reinstated before the Olympics begin. When it comes to match fixing, the Rio Olympics are still far enough away for real change to take place beforehand.
In fact, the Sorenson and Vittinghus cases are evidence reform is underway and, so far, has been effective. Both players reported their match fixing approaches through a new Betting 'Whistle Blower' System set up this year by the BWF. The system allows players to report inappropriate activity anonymously. (Their names were released in October through Danish media, not the BWF.)
The IOC isn't an organization known for its ethics, but in the months since Adams spoke in Sochi, it too has made match fixing a priority. Just last month, it signed a cooperative agreement with Interpol to help monitor and fight match fixing. Interpol is much better equipped to deal with the nebulous world of online gambling than an agency like France's ARJEL.
It might sound counterintuitive, but perhaps more scandalous reports would be the best thing for Olympic sports ahead of Rio. If we don't hear about attempted fixes and doped athletes, it's cause for alarm; it means that nothing is happening. Public scandal is the canary in the coal mine. It's the only way to know if the system—and the reforms—are working.