Posted on January 6, 2017
Competitive Losing: Bicycle sprints, badminton, sumo, and more
I’ve been obsessed lately with the idea of high level athletes being forced to NOT give their best when playing a sport. I’ve found a few stories and videos of athletes underachieving for a greater good, so I thought I’d share them here.
Bicycle Track Racing
It’s counterintuitive, but the beginning few laps of a bicycle sprint might actually consist of two riders intentionally trying to pedal so slow that the person behind them is forced to take the lead. In the embedded video below, the two racers spend the first 5 minutes riding as slow as possible (sometimes even moving backwards!), then suddenly bursting into high speed on the very last lap. It’s five minutes and thirty seconds of painfully slow riding, then an insane 15 second burst at the end. 95% of the entire race was about fighting for last place.
The reason track cyclist might adopt this strategy is because the rider in the back may try to draft off the front rider, thus saving energy in the final lap. It may also be easier at the last minute to try to surprise the lead cyclist and pass them right before the finish line.
Olympic Badminton Scandal of 2012
As an odd result of a round robin Olympic tournament, all four of the finalist teams were incentivized to lose the quarter finals. From Wikipedia:
“China’s only hope of gold and silver medals was for the other China team to lose in their final round-robin game, pushing themselves to the opposite side of the bracket. The South Korean opponents decided it was also in their best interest to lose, as a defeat would give them an easier bracket match-up.”
The resulting matches were a mix of players intentionally serving the shuttlecock into the net or trying not to return a serve. As a result of the “scandal”, all four teams were later disqualified for “Not using one’s best efforts to win a match”.
Freakonomics crunched some data and in a paper titled “Winning Isn’t Everything: Corruption In Sumo Wrestling” where they showed that there appears to be wide spread match-throwing. Rather than throwing matches to profit bookies and gamblers, sumo wrestlers are believed to be taking advantage of the sumo rules to help other players gain rank.
“The key institutional feature of sumo wrestling that makes it ripe for corruption is the
existence of a sharp nonlinearity in the payoff function for competitors. A sumo tournament (basho) involves 66 wrestlers (rikishi) participating in 15 bouts each. A wrestler who achieves a winning record (eight wins or more, known as kachi-koshi) is guaranteed to rise up the of? cial ranking (banzuke); a wrestler with a losing record (make-koshi) falls in the rankings. A wrestler’s rank is a source of prestige, the basis for salary determination, and also in uences the perks that he enjoys.”
In other words, a kachi-koshi player has little to lose if they help out a make-koshi player in a thrown-match. As a result, the trainer of the lower player might return the favor by having one of their kachi-koshi players lose a match in return.