Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Formats, The Strategists & The Audience

It is often the case that in a huge sporting event like the Olympic games, there will be many stages of the competition before the final battle for the medals. There will be many athletes representing the many countries of the world, and those preliminary stages are meant to select only the best of the best would fight it out in the final round. What usually happens is that from each preliminary round, only the top few performers will be selected to compete in the next round; the rest will end their medal quest at that round.

I find it quite interesting that, for example, in say the 100m sprint event, the elite runners don't normally go all out to win the race. They run fast—yes—but they merely run as fast as to ensure that they get into the next round of the competition. And then in the next round, they will adopt the same approach, i.e. running only as fast as to ensure their eligibility to continue competing in the next round. They will eventually run to the best of their ability in the final round of the competition.

In other sports such as swimming, we tend to see the same attitude from the athletes. I'm not sure if there is really a significant effect of saving that little bit of energy by running or swimming a fraction of a second slower during the earlier stages, but since so many athletes are doing the same thing, I suppose there must be a difference!

But imagine what would happen if the format of the race is such that each round is a knockout round; meaning only the winner of each round gets to continue to compete in the next round. I think in that case, all the athletes will run or swim as fast as they can to win. Losing is then not an option! Getting second place means the end!

When these athletes don't run or swim to the best of their ability to win in the earlier stages of the competition, are they not competing in the spirit of the game?

The reality is that the Olympics is a unique event because it only happens once in every four years. Some of these athletes spend their entire life training to win the Olympic medals. And apart from years and years of hard training, they go about trying to win by proper planning. They come up with strategies. They are entrusted to deliver medals to their respective countries. The medals, no matter how you look at it, become the primary targets! However, there are those preliminary rounds that they will have to go through first. The strategy is that at each round, the focus is to get to the next round, and then the next—until they get to the final round.

I can still remember how disappointed I was in 1984 when Carl Lewis, having made his first jump in the long jump event, and knowing that that was enough to secure the gold medal, decided not to try to break the record. He did that because going to the Olympics that year, he had the mission of capturing 4 gold medals. He decided not to risk injury and opted to save himself for the other events.

Athletes play by the rules and formats of the sports. They come up with strategies and try to take advantage in whatever way they can, but within the parameters of the formats of the sports. The ultimate focus is to win medals—not just win the preliminary rounds.

That is why I don't quite agree with the disqualification of 4 pairs of badminton teams for trying to throw away their games. They had played the earlier rounds according to the format of the game. They had cleared their respective hurdles into the next round. Winning at that stage was no longer necessary. They took full advantage of the format. Yet they were disqualified "because they did not try their best to win."

Well, as far as I'm concerned, they did try their best to win. But they tried to win medals, not necessarily every single match!

Unfortunately, the audience that paid to watch the games did not find that very amusing; far from it, they felt cheated! And the Olympics bigshots had to act; and regretfully they arrived at the decision to disqualify the players who played the game, relying on the format.

I think if there is any party at fault here, it must be those who came up with the format in the first place. You can't fault Usain Bolt for not running his best in the earlier rounds of the sprinting event; you can't fault Carl Lewis for not trying to jump even farther then he already did; and you can't fault the badminton players for not trying to win a particular game. The point is that they had a mission to win the medals. How they get to the medal rounds doesn't really matter, as long as they obey the rules and formats of their respective sports. If it's really important to please the audience; that these athletes must win every single game, then change the format to ensure that they do exactly that.