Citius, Altius, Fortius

After reading a spirited defense of the disqualified badminton players in the Spectator (reprinted from the Toronto Star), I tried to work out what went so wrong.

Reading Wikipedia about how a round-robin tournament works, I found all kinds of qualifying terms that seem to contradict the sense of the argument:

In theory a round robin tournament is the fairest way to determine a champion among a known and fixed number of participants. Each player or team has an equal chance against all other participants. The element of luck is seen to be reduced as compared to a knockout system since a few bad performances need not cripple a competitor’s chances of ultimate victory. A participant’s final record is thus seen to be more accurately represented in the results since it was arrived at over a prolonged period against equal competition…

The primary disadvantage to a round robin tournament is the time needed to complete it…. Other issues stem from the difference between the theoretical fairness of the round robin format and practice in a real event. Since the victor is gradually arrived at through multiple rounds of play teams who perform poorly can be eliminated from title contention rather early on, yet they are forced to play out their remaining games. Thus games occur late in competition between competitors with no remaining chance of success. Moreover, some later matches will pair one competitor who has something left to play for against another who does not. This asymmetry means that playing the same opponents is not necessarily equitable: the same opponents in a different order may play harder or easier matches….

Further issues arise where a round-robin is used as a qualifying round within a larger tournament. A competitor already qualified for the next stage before its last game may either not try hard (in order to conserve resources for the next phase) or even deliberately lose (if the scheduled next-phase opponent for a lower-placed qualifier is perceived to be easier than for a higher-placed one). Four pairs in the 2012 Olympics Women’s doubles badminton having qualified for the next round, were disqualified for attempting to lose to in the round robin stage to avoid fellow compatriots and better ranked opponents.[5] The round robin stage at the Olympics were a new introduction and potential problems were readily known prior to the tournament.

Okay, I think I understand that. Deliberately losing seems counter-intuitive, but in my experience Round Robin games at school never had this many participants, and kids do not play “strategically”. Kids play to win because losing is a blow to their self-esteem, and may cause them to be ridiculed by their peers. (More about this in a later blog.)

The Torstar sports editorial argues that at the Olympic level winning is also everything, and therefore strategic playing in the early games of a round robin tournament may actually favour the losers. Worrying about temporary loss of face is irrelevant. “Throwing” an early game, if it protects you from having to play a stronger team in the next round, may be the best, or even only, option.

Apparently this happens routinely in RR badminton tournaments, but the teams who were disqualified had several major disadvantages. The audience didn’t understand the strategy and booed them, calling attention to their lame sleep walking through the game… both sides trying to be more incompetent than the other! It would be comical if it weren’t so sad!

Of course the officials, who cynically knew what each team was cynically up to, had to respond in their own cynical way… talking up issues of Olympic sportsmanship. But in reality, the Olympic Games are not about sportsmanship; they are about winning!

The article, worth reading in its entirety, states:

Amateurs are here to represent their country and win medals. The national federations that pay their subsistence wage are their bosses. They don’t care how good you look. They don’t care how hard you tried. They care how much you win. Public sports funding isn’t charity. It’s an extension of a nation’s foreign policy objectives. One of those is that you are hale enough to occasionally kick the asses of your friends and enemies…. Putting aside all the lip service paid to respecting the Olympic spirit….   the highest goal here is to win within the boundaries of the rules…. Four inferior teams, including a Canadian pair, were pushed forward as replacement cannon fodder…. for those eight [disqualified]competitors, the unfairness of being robbed by a riled-up, half-interested mob, will last forever.

So win now and run the risk of losing later, when it is more important to win. Or lose now, suffer a temporary embarrassment, and win when it really counts!

Citius, Altius, Fortius… Go figure!

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