Morality in sport


On Tuesday night at the London Games, some of the world’s best badminton players hit some of the sport’s worst shots. Sad serves into the net. Returns that sailed far wide. …On Wednesday, four women’s doubles teams — two from South Korea and one each from China and Indonesia — were disqualified. …The eight players were found to have tried to lose their matches intentionally, apparently because they had determined that a loss would allow them to play a weaker opponent in the next round.

I don’t really understand the moral outrage over this. The competition is set up such that winning it is easiest if you lose some matches, but there are also sporting norms that say you have to do your best to win every game. Obviously, when the rewards to winning the competition are high, those incentives will over-ride the norms of sporting conduct. It’s no surprise that teams would try to throw a match, although I am surprised that they did it so obviously: you’d think they’d practice this sort of thing a lot if most competitions work this way.

There’s a more technical discussion of incentive compatibility constraints in the design of the competition over at Cheap Talk.

  • DetMackey

    I don’t know if it’s moral outrage, but that people want value for money.  If I’d paid olympic prices to see those games, I want to know that teams are trying their best.  I don’t want to see a forgone conclusion.

    Of course, I could factor that into my decision to purchase tickets to the game, but when you’re purchasing so far ahead of time and have little idea about what the state of the competition is going to be then (ie whether teams are going to have the incentive to lose), it’s difficult.

    Football has tried to limit the opportunities for these situations by having the playing the last game of pool play at world cups and in leagues at the same time.  You might remember the fantastic spectacle that was the end of this year’s English Premier League and Manchester United and Manchester City playing their games at the same time (with at least one overseas tv station screening both games in split-screen).

    • No doubt it’s undesireable to have these games, but I blame the organisers rather than the players. I didn’t know about the EPL situation but that’s an interesting way of overcoming the problem! I guess simultaneous matches reduce the potential revenue from TV advertising, so maybe that says something about the relative value organisers put on revenue vs athletes’ chance to medal.

      • DetMackey

        Oh, yes, fans should direct frustration to the organisers.  But if we look at it in a game theory framework, the organisers might be responding the best way by throwing the teams out: I don’t think we’re going to see such obvious losing again!

        At the South Africa World Cup we managed to get tickets to what was supposed to be a best gave of the group stage: Brazil versus Portugal.  Turned out to be the worst of the eight games we attended as both teams played for the draw knowing that was all they needed no matter any realistic result in the other game.  Maybe only 20% of the spectators were neutral fans, but that didn’t stop everyone booing the hell of both teams.  So, simultaneous games don’t work in all scenarios.

        • Indeed, the saddest part is that kicking them out is only likely to improve the quality of the ‘cheating’ in future.

        • DetMackey

          If a badminton play cheats in the stadium and no one can tell, does it make a sound?

        • DetMackey

          Excuse all the typos.

        • I’m sure I speak for James as well when I say that all typos will always be excused – otherwise I know I wouldn’t be able to get away with any of my blog posts …