Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Sport Rules and Their Consequences

The Economist has an interesting piece on how changes to the scoring rules in gymnastics favor younger athletes, creating incentives for cheating (falsifying age to circumvent minimum age requirements), increasing pressures on younger athletes and working against older athletes (older here being late teens and twenties).

The Economist explains:
On March 2nd, at the American Cup, one of the first big competitions of the season, the gymnastics federation made another change to its Code of Points. Tim Daggett, a former Olympic champion and now a television commentator, explained the consequences in one discipline, the beam. “If you don’t go immediately from one skill to another [or] if your arms swing backwards or forwards…it’s a full five-tenths of a point off.” Not only has the event become more demanding, but such transitions are easier for someone with a small figure.
Women’s gymnastics thus point in two directions at once. The FIG increased the minimum age requirement to help stop coaches from putting so much pressure on young gymnasts’ bodies and minds. At the same time the sport’s scoring system continues to change in ways that favour the supple frames of young, even prepubescent, girls.

One answer would be to reduce the minimum age—but it was raised for the best of reasons and few if any would be happy if it were cut. A better idea may be to return the scoring system to the days when balletic grace counted for more than the number of tumbles you can fit into a beam routine. Or the federation could make women’s gymnastics a bit more like men’s, by giving greater weight to the strength skills that physically more mature women are likelier to possess. The men, after all, seem to have no problems competing at the ripe old age of 22.
The situation provides a stark reminder that rules in sport create profound incentives that competitors respond to -- in this case coming into conflict broader societal values about the role of children in elite sports.

A great example of the effect of competition rules on on-field behavior comes from Preston and Szymanski (2003, here in PDF):
. . . during a soccer match between Barbados and Grenada for the Shell Caribbean Cup in February 1994. The Barbados team had to win the match by at least two goals in order to face Trinidad and Tobago in the finals; anything less and Grenada advanced to the next round instead. The rules in effect at the time specified that if the score were tied at the end of regulation play, the match would continue into sudden-death overtime and the first team to score during the overtime period would be considered a two-goal winner. Barbados was leading 2–0 well into the second half of play, when Grenada finally managed to score a goal in the 83rd minute to make the score 2–1. The Barbados players realized with 3 minutes to play that they were unlikely to score again in the time remaining and deliberately kicked the ball into their own goal to tie the match at 2–2 and force an overtime period. Grenada then attempted to score in its own goal to prevent the match from going into overtime, but Barbados had already started defending Grenada’s goal to prevent it from succeeding. The two teams then spent the remaining few minutes with Barbados defending both ends of the field as Grenada tried to put the ball into either goal, but time expired with the score still tied. Four minutes into overtime play, Barbados scored and advanced to the finals.
The lesson to take from both the gymnastics case and that related by Preston and Symanski is to pay attention to the design of sporting contests, because that design will have consequences on and off the field. Expecting athletes and others in sport not to respond the incentives created for them goes against human behavior and common sense.

1 comment:

  1. Along the same lines- The debacle that was the Olympic badminton competition comes to mind....