Hugh McCutcheon could have lost to Turkey, and Brazil would have been eliminated. (Elsa / Getty Images )
This is a story about doing the right thing. It was kind of overshadowed by lots of stories about doing the wrong thing. The story is late to the table but still worth telling.
The London Games ended a month ago. They were highly successful on all fronts.
There were, of course, moments of controversy, one of which was when eight badminton players were disqualified from the Games — two doubles teams from South Korea and one each from China and Indonesia — for throwing pool-play matches. They did so because, by losing, they could maneuver their chances of playing an easier opponent when the playoffs began at the quarterfinal level.
When discovered and admitted to, indignation came immediately from the governing International Olympic Committee and London organizers. The badminton scandal became a big deal. Many in the media chose to be moralists. This was the Olympics, after all, where trying your best at all times, under all circumstances, was doctrine. Headlines screamed. The words "Olympic ideals" were twinned so often they became almost inseparable.
The badminton scandal occurred July 31. Four days later, the U.S. women's volleyball team played its final match in pool play against Turkey.
The format in several Olympic sports has qualifying teams divided into pools. Teams play schedules within their groupings early in the Games. The four teams from each pool with the best records emerge into the playoffs, starting with a quarterfinal round. The playoffs are single elimination.
On Aug. 4, when the U.S. women, ranked No. 1 in the world and unbeaten in their pool, took the court against Turkey, there were lots of dynamics, none of it getting badminton-scandal attention. At stake for the U.S. was nothing. They would make the playoffs win or lose. At stake for Turkey was everything. Lose and they were out.
Also at stake for another prominent team, world No. 2 and defending Olympic champion Brazil, was everything. If Turkey were to beat the U.S., Brazil would be eliminated and the U.S. would not have to face it later.
The setup was perfect. All Coach Hugh McCutcheon's U.S. team had to do was lose to Turkey, and Brazil — the team it lost to in the final in Beijing, the team that had been No. 1 in the world until late in 2011, when the U.S. took over that top ranking — would be out.
It was a made-to-order tank job, a golden opportunity on several levels. The memory of the Brazilians dancing and clowning on the victory stand in Beijing in 2008 — kind of an in-your-face celebration — presumably remained fresh.
There was also logic to consider. A game in which the outcome meant nothing can still result in costly injury for your playoff run. All these thoughts were there, or as McCutcheon says, "It wasn't talked about, but it was in the air, all around us."
And so what happened?
The U.S. women fell behind badly in the first set, 13-7, and then rallied to win 27-25, 25-16, 25-19. Turkey was gone and Brazil was in the playoffs.
"They [Brazil] came around afterward and were thanking us," McCutcheon said.
And what else happened?
Veteran setter Lindsey Berg, the heart of the U.S. team, pulled a calf muscle against Turkey and sat out the next game, a quarterfinal against the Dominican Republic that the U.S. won convincingly.
And what ultimately happened?
You guessed it. In the final, Brazil rallied from a set down to beat the U.S., win the gold medal and throw yet another in-your-face dance and whoop-it-up celebration on the victory stand.
"I guess you could say that was a little bit ungrateful," McCutcheon says, as he now settles into his new position as women's volleyball coach at the University of Minnesota.
He also said that the matter of tanking the Turkey game, which never really was under consideration or openly discussed, was put to rest when he talked to his team about what their Olympic memories would be 80 years from now. Tanking a game would not be a favorable one.
The badminton scandal captured our fancy, apparently because it was bad news. When the U.S. women's volleyball team did the right thing, there was nary a peep.
Ideally, this column will turn up the volume. Even if that's only a little bit, it is worthwhile.