Apropos the Olympics – Part 3: Naïve rules and formats create invitation to manipulate

Questions were raised: how desperately did Norway try to win the final group game against Spain!?

Most people who follow sports might have expected that there would be frequent headlines about doping during the Olympic Games. And indeed there were some instances, although some of them involved revelations that dated back to previous Olympic Games. Testing methods have now improved, although they always seem to lag behind the skills of the perpetrators and the experts helping them. But this meant that some samples that had been kept since previous Games were now tested and led to positive results. But the number of new cases during the competition in London thankfully seemed smaller than expected.

Instead, anyone who followed the Olympics must have heard about the stories that seemed to create such outrage and astonishment: athletes who manipulated the rules to gain an advantage. Of course, much of this depends on the nature of the respective sports. In handball and football, for instance, players will constantly and intentionally use methods that go beyond the rules, in the hope that the referees will allow them to get away with it. What goes on, literally below the surface, in waterpolo is perhaps best not to discuss. And a small nudge in an 800-meter race or sneaky move in a bike race seem to part of the normal competition.

But it is very different, when someone is accused of intentionally trying to gain an advantage by not winning a game or by causing something within the rules that is meant to force the judges to do something that is in their favor. To make it worse, some of the athletes do not seem to be the slightest reticent about openly telling the world afterwards about what they did, that it was intentional, and what they hoped to gain. In such cases, it is hard to know whether someone’s admission of guilt is really desirable… However, what is also sad to see is that, in many instance, naïve or thoughtless rules and competition formats play into the hands of those who want to get an unfair advantage, In other words, in many cases the problem could have been avoided if they sports federation had been a bit smarter.

The case that has received the most publicity is that of some badminton players who conspicuously tried to outdo each other in avoiding to win the game between them. The situation was that it was known to both the doubles teams involved that they would get an easier opponent in the next round if they lost the game. So it became a ‘game of chicken’, in the sense that both teams were guilty of action that was intended to make them lose points and then the game as a whole. The judges and the spectators were furious but helpless. But afterwards, because of the public outrage and the image problem, the players were kicked out of the tournament; and now after the Games, they have been given a more drastic suspension than the worst doping offender.

In team sprint cycling, a team fell behind from the start, whereupon one of the members fell intentionally and caused a restart under the rules. Moreover, he openly admitted afterwards that this had been part of their plans all along. The team went on to take advantage of the restart. In another case, the real issue was more a bureaucratic mistake, but it became a hot topic as it involved a gold medal winner in a high-profile event. One of the favorites in the 1500m race for men had also been entered in the 800m competition. But when he realized that this might be too much for him and reduce his chances in 1500m, his federation forgot to withdraw his entry. So to avoid disqualification he was forced to come out ready to start; but when he limped off the track during the first lap, the jury members got incensed and wanted to get him thrown out of the Games. A medical certificate, friendly or honest, resolved the matter, and his start in 1500m was rescued; whereupon he showed his class and won the gold medal!

Women’s football attracted attention, as in one of the groups the teams seemed to calculate that it was better to be a runner-up than a group winner, in order to have a supposedly easier path afterwards. With much less attention, there was some talk about the same thing possibly having happened on the final day of group play in women’s handball. Speculation was heard about a calculation on the part of the defending Olympic champions Norway, that it might be just as well not to fight too hard to win the final game, as a defeat might get them a less experienced opponent in the quarter-final. Of course, such an accusation would be very awkward, giving the virtual impossibility of ever showing what the intentions were. But then the topic lingered a bit, especially after Norway did win the quarterfinal.

As I see it, in the cases of badminton, football and handball, the real problem is related to the competition format. So for me it is an absurdity to punish the badminton players in the way that has now happened. Speculation about the advantages of not always winning a game or using the strongest line-up in a particular game happens routinely in many sports throughout all levels of competition. The job of a federation that wants to reduce the likelihood of such gamesmanship and the negative PR that goes with it, is to ensure a tournament format and schedule that reduces such opportunities. I know from experience that, precisely in the Olympic Games, the individual sports federations do not have free hands in the same way as in a World Championship. But some flexibility surely does exist.

And there may also be conflicting considerations. In handball it is clear that a format with groups of six will be more likely to create situations where manipulation may be tempting. The chances of having meaningless games, or games where neither team cares much about winning, are greater. The issue is to keep such games at a minimum, through smaller groups or more emphasis on direct-elimination games. This might lead to fewer games for the weaker teams, but (unlike the situation in a World Championships) this might be tolerable in the Olympics. It may also be preferably to use a draw to determine opponents when moving from groups to the next stage, rather than relying on a predetermined format. And of course, it does not help if, as in the case of handball this time, the draw and the seeding were knowingly flawed from the beginning, with one stronger and one weaker group for both the men and the women…