Friday, August 3, 2012

A Defense of Tactical Positioning in Tournament Play

Writing at Play the Game Andreas Selliaas provides a defense of the actions of the eight badminton players expelled from the Olympics for "playing to lose" in order to gain advantage in the seedings for knock-out play. He writes:
Eight badminton players have been expelled from the Olympic tournament for deliberately trying to lose their matches. This has been referred to as a scandal, but who is it a scandal for? When did it become illegal to try to gain the greatest tactical advantage in order to get as far as possible in a tournament?

The badminton players were thrown out of the Olympics because they did not live up to the Olympic ideal of athletes giving their all to win. They are said to have put both badminton and the Olympic ideals into disrepute. What happened with “the most important thing is not to win, but to take part”? The banned athletes were booed at because they were losing on purpose. The spectators had paid a lot of money for their tickets and they wanted their money’s worth.

I agree that it was embarrassing to watch, but I am doubtful of whether it was actually against the rules. What is more embarrassing is the fact that the rules are formed in a way that allows for these kinds of tactics. It is the ones who make the rules that should be expelled and not the athletes.
Sport' competition provides an unvarnished look at how human's respond to incentives in decision making contexts. No one should be surprised that people act in ways that they perceive will leave them better off than had they acted differently -- this is a core understanding from the social sciences.

Selliaas provides several excellent examples of tactical positioning in Olympic competition:
When it comes to track and field I am sure that we will see Usain Bolt jog-trot in the initial heats and in the knock-out stages. Is this okay? Yes, because he wants to win and save his strength for when it really counts. There is no one who wants to expel Bolt from the Olympics for not performing his best at all times.

When Kobe Bryant – the second biggest sports star in the Olympics – sat on the bench for almost the whole game against Tunisia no one was demanding a refund for their tickets. The US was saving Bryant so that he would be able to perform well later in the tournament. They could probably have won by more with him on the court, but that is not what counts.
If badminton players see advantage in gaming the rules, it is not the fault of the players, but a poor design in the rules. To change how players behave, change the rules.


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