Incentives matter, Olympic edition

The Olympic controversy of the day is from badminton—a sport I follow religiously.  Four women’s doubles teams, including the top-ranked Chinese team, were disqualified for trying to lose their matches so that they would get more favorable match-ups in the next round.

Shocking! Though not really.  When the rules of the tournament create incentives to lose a match, is it a surprise that highly competitive athletes will do what the rules allow them to do if it helps their prospects of winning?  Indeed, one might criticize them for not doing so.   How is trying to do their best to win the tournament either unethical or unsportsmanlike?  It’s not like they threw the match to get a payoff from some bookie or hired some thug to take a crowbar to their opponent’s kneecap.   People say they ripped off fans who paid a lot of money to see world-class play.  But is failing to please fans the definition of sportsmanship?

Trying to lose always sounds sort of unsportsmanlike.  But there are lots of legitimate ways that athletes under-perform for strategic advantage.  A basketball player will intentionally miss a free throw.  A quarterback will take a knee.  A defensive back will swat down a ball he could have intercepted.  A pitcher will walk a batter to create force-outs or to bypass the biggest bat of the opponents.  Top players will sit out unimportant games to preserve their health for games that matter.  And all of these things have the potential to cause fans to boo and hiss, but everyone knows the under-performance is for legitimate strategic reasons.  (Intentionally throwing games to get a higher position in next years draft is a little ethically more suspect, I think, but maybe not.)  The badminton players were under-performing for strategic advantage within the context of the rules of the tournament they were trying to win.  Should we expect anything different?

The real villains here, of course, are the sports officials who write lofty and vague codes of conduct requiring athletes to behave one way, but then incentivize them to behave another, creating unnecessary conflicts for the athletes.  Shame on them.

In the women’s gymnastics qualifying round,  reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber finished fourth in the All-Around qualifying events, but is disqualified from competing because only two athletes from each country can qualify, and two American girls were ahead of her.  So, 21 other young women with inferior performance get a chance to compete, and Jordyn has to bite the bitter pill.  A Russian, Brit, and Chinese faced the same fate so that the 28th placing Australian can have a chance to compete.

This type of multinational affirmative action is disgusting for many reasons.  But it can also create powerful incentives that could be very damaging.  Imagine a young woman who is part of a team that has a highly authoritarian leadership—a given in places like China.  Assume the top performer stumbles a bit, and the third-ranked member of the team is told by her coach that she has to throw the competition to preserve a spot for the top-ranked player who was facing elimination.  Not to hard to imagine.

It would be nice if the athletes, who are the ones paying with blood, sweat and tears, could be assured the opportunity to compete without political influence by officials whose incentives are very different from the competitors.

Of course the same also holds true outside the world of sport.

6 thoughts on “Incentives matter, Olympic edition

  1. All of which are symptoms indicating that the Olympics (®) is an entertainment event, not a sports challenge. The addition of sports that are adequately represented as professional sports (basketball, soccer, tennis, etc.) is further evidence that sport is not the primary focus of the Olympics. A couple more: gymnasts must be 16 or older, and men’s soccer players must be less than 23 years old (w/three exemptions).

    Personally I find the Olympics to be unwatchable, in part because of the situations such as you mention, and because of the unbearably cliched television presentation.

  2. Sven, where’s the Hayekian in you that sees these rules as emergent? There’s plenty of other rules that arose because people generally decided they constituted bad sportsmanship. Think balking in baseball or intentional grounding in football (except during the probowl!). You’re treating sports as if there is some optimal set of rules that economics can uncover. There is nothing essential about the concept of sportsmanship. It is defined in the process of playing the particular sport and may change over time as preferences and circumstances change.

  3. The question I have been trying in vain to answer via the news coverage on this one I would think should be essential to understanding the situation: How clearly, if at all, was the expectation that the athletes must perform their best in each match communicated to them? Given how blatant the match-throwing behavior was, I would suspect it was not communicated at all, at least not in any kind of direct, formal way.

    And if that happens to be the case, then the startlingly severe reaction of the officials makes perfect sense: as a projection of their own embarassment at having structured the tournament to provide perverse incentives.

    The tournament structure needs to be altered to align athletes’ incentives in any one match with their strategic goals. Otherwise, an unwelcome and contentious subjective element creeps in. At least in this instance the deliberately poor performance was blatant. What happens when another team manages to more subtlely throw a match? Or a well-regarded team has an off day? How would we know which is the case? Every first-round loser with a easier second-round match would be subject to accusations of ever-more-subtle manipulation. One of the great things about organized sports should be that it gives us (usually) clear rules for (mostly) objectively determining outcomes and comparing performances.

  4. And what should we do in the mean time, given that the ideal rules of badminton have not yet been written? We should not disqualify them? And do you also know for a fact that the rules official do not see the error(s) within those rules?

  5. Bad sportsmanship (and good) varies from sport to sport and from culture to culture. It may be bad form to beat a team 100-0 in some cultures, but unsporting to let the other team score some mercy points in others.

    The Olympics are steeped in a European (and primarily British) sports ethos, so good sportsmanship is defined from within that paradigm. Unless you happen to actually be British; or Italian.

    But there clearly is an economic problem here: badminton teams with higher seeds should simply be allowed to choose who they play. In other words, the team with the best record should be allowed to get their first choice of opponent from the remaining teams, and so on down the line. They should do the same thing in Major League Baseball, by the way.

    In France, commentators are convinced Spain lost to Brazil in order to avoid the US basketball team. Yet Spain was allowed to remain in the tourney….

    Vivent les Olympiques. I guess.

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