Fairness, the Olympics, and the Psychology of Competition

I’m not a big sports nut, nor am I investing much time in following the Olympics, but there are some stories that are tough to ignore. The badminton controversy is one of those stories.

If you’ve somehow missed this one, several badminton teams have been disqualified and unceremoniously kicked out the Olympic village for intentionally losing matches. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was outraged and fans that paid good money to attend the matches were certainly disappointed.

The interesting thing here is that the matches weren’t thrown due to bribes or to allow some other country to medal. These were some of the top teams in the world choosing to lose to get a better draw in subsequent rounds where the matches really mattered.

In other words, it was a strategy.

Stepping back, this happens all of the time. In qualifying heats of many events, it’s not uncommon for top competitors to not “give it their all” to save energy for the real thing or to keep from showing competitors what bar they’ll need to clear in order to win. Swimmers sandbag during qualifying heats or Jockeys run horses more slowly at the beginning of a race to save up for a final sprint to the finish. This is the strategy that they follow. It’s a bit of a risk, but sometimes it pays off.

Sporting events are built around a series of rules that guide what is or isn’t appropriate. Competitors develop their strategies around those rules. That’s as true for badminton as it is for swimming, kayaking, archery or soccer.

What we have here is a faulty set of rules and incentives for badminton. The Badminton World Federation set up a bracketing process in which there’s a benefit to losing a match at a certain point along the way.

This is the fault of the governing body of the sport, not the athletes!

Let’s look at the situation from our new favorite field of behavioral economics, gamification. You’ll recall that gamification applies techniques that promote competition (similar to ones found in video games and sports) to problems in many areas, including health promotion, business, and, in this case, Olympic competition.

Gamification asserts that people will take actions that clearly lead to awards. Setting up sloppy reward structures will lead to behaviors contrary to what is desired as may happen when incenting sales people too highly for a product that is unprofitable – they’ll sell lots of it to the detriment of the organization.

Another concept that gamification brings to the table is that people will always attempt to game the system. This isn’t some failure of moral character. It’s human nature. It’s expected. It’s the norm.

The bracketing process for badminton should have rewarded victories throughout the process. Those who win in the qualifying rounds should have had the best draws later on. They should have been rewarding the best performances rather than penalizing them. Many teams saw this flaw and tried to exploit it. That’s why this isn’t merely one team involved – eight players on four teams plus several coaches are under scrutiny.

Bottom line, these teams aren’t in London for the entertainment value to NBC viewers or the merits of sportsmanship. They’re there to win, and they’re being punished for it. The IOC and Badminton World Federation need to admit that they messed up and let these folks play it out and fix it for next time.

In the “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” department, this has been a great tool for raising the visibility of the sport which, at least in the United States, most of us have only a passing knowledge of.  More people are talking about the sport than ever before (heck, I’ve just written a blog post about it) and are now familiar with the nuances of the game. While unfair to the competitors who have invested years of their lives into preparing for this year’s Olympics, it may turn out to be a good thing for the sport overall.

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Ben Dillon

About Ben Dillon

Ben’s a big picture type of guy. He loves sharing new ideas in digital marketing, keeping a watchful eye on healthcare industry trends and seeing how it all intersects. A sought-after speaker, writer, blogger and current SHSMD board member, Ben’s an influential voice in healthcare marketing, helping organizations across the country embrace online strategies to engage health consumers. Combine his industry savvy with his background in software development and you can see why he’s also an important member of Geonetric’s software team, ensuring our content management system stays a step ahead of market needs. Ben holds a master’s degree in eBusiness and strategic management from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from the University of Michigan. When he’s not traveling and evangelizing, Ben enjoys cooking with his family and playing the Big House with the University of Michigan Alumni marching band.

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