Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Winning Isn't Everything

I love the Olympics and a recent scandal there in particular has perked my interest.  Four teams were ejected from the badminton competition for trying to lose.  Not knowing badminton rules very well I can only assume that like fencing they have a rule that forbids throwing matches.  Many people want to blame not the athletes but the system that creates the problem.  From what I understand, like soccer and beach volleyball (among other sports) badminton has pool play that then creates the seeding for a direct elimination bracket.  When one of the two Chinese teams unexpectedly lost a matches it became clear that if the second team won all their matches they would face each other in the semis instead of the finals.  Since the two teams are considered to be #1 and #2 in the tournament they both could benefit from not facing each other until the finals.  It may seem counter-intuitive to sports, but what if losing sometimes is better for the longer term picture.  An example of this can be seen in swimming events.  Competitors like Phelps who swim in several races, sometimes on the same day have to make choices about how to spend their finite energies.  If they go all out in the semi-final heat of one event, does that leave them enough energy to win gold in another event?  Is only doing enough to qualify in one event as bad as throwing a match in pool play to conserve strength or set-up a more favorable draw for the final bracket?  What about a tennis player who drops a set they don't think they can win to save strength for the next one?  Is winning really everything in sports or should we be acknowledging that there can be a competitive advantage to losing at times?  Is that a problem?  Obviously in specific instances, like fencing where it is clearly against the rules there are issues, but maybe we should be looking at changing those rules.  What is the difference between when it is the better interests to lose within the sport, like going easy in a race compared to when it is in one's better interests outside the competition, like the White Sox throwing games in the World Series?  Sports are a competition that is defined entirely by rules.  My question is ... what do we want the rules to be?  Is it a bad thing when in the effort for a greater victory someone chooses to lose?  Some might call it a very Christian notion in fact.  I love it when game theory intersects with theology.