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.


renroc said...

Exactly how I feel about this farce
which is entirely the fault of those who decided on the competition format - they didn't learn their lesson from the Thomas Cup some years back when South Korea deliberately fielded singles players for the doubles and vice versa.
Winning the match was not only unnecessary - it would have been detrimental to their chances of ultimately winning a medal. Winning the match can also be interpreted as 'trying to lose' since the players would have tried hard to tire themselves out so that they could get a chance to meet tougher opponents.
The Chinese would probably have gone against team instructions if they had won.

Cornelius said...

Thanks, renroc, for your comment. I agree with your view. It's a strange decision which, I think, was made under pressure from the audience. So I guess in the end the audience still counts for a lot! Sigh

Fan Teck Tsen said...

i guess the nature of the game (badminton) also one of the cause for the audience to actually voice out their displeased on the 4 pairs performance. as we all know badminton is a sport of accuracy, speed and also great long rally and the first set from the Chinese pair vs the Korean pair it was really ugly, it was worst then watching a training match. As compare to other sports like athletics and football it's a bit hard for audience to voice out their displease on their performances as for example a top 100meters runner doesn't really need to push themselves to their fullest in order to qualify for the next round cause we all know those qualifying round runners are just not at the same league as those top 8 runners in the world, as for those football matches both team can always play out a draw result and still doesn't look ugly. Although both in terms are showing what they said "not performing to their fullest" in a competition but it doesn't look as ugly as what was performed by the 4 pairs of badminton players.

I do agreed with renroc that if anyone were to blame it was those who determine the competition format and the respective countries coaches who at the end determine how their players play their matches, the players just merely follow what instruction given to them by their coaches.

Cornelius said...

Fan Teck Tsen,

I'm not sure I can agree with you fully. I know for some sports, e.g. gymnastics or diving, the element of beauty counts for a lot. It's the beauty that carries points. But badminton is not about beauty; though admittedly some people may see "beauty" in the tricks.

Ulginess of a match shouldn't be the basis of disqualification of players. We don't want to bark up the wrong tree.

The main issue here is whether, on account of the format of the competition, was it compulsory to win that game at that stage of the competition? It's as simple as that, really. If the format does not compel the teams to win at that stage of the competition (because they have done enough to proceed into the next round), then my contention is that they shouldn't be disqualified when they lose their games - deliberately or otherwise.

In fact, even in gymnastics and diving, there the format allows players to lose a particular round, then they too shouldn't be disqualified.

If we want beauty so much, then change the format of competition so that you can force beauty out of these players in every single game! But don't punish the players for finding loopholes in the mediocre format.

Cornelius said...

I'd also like to add that the players, the coaches; in fact the entire team shoulder the same responsibility. And that is to win medals at the Games. If they have to lose some games before the medal round to improve their chances of winning, but within the rules/format, then why the hell not?