Thursday, August 2, 2012

How tournament format can influence fair play

This week at the Olympics in London, four teams of badminton players in the women's doubles event were disqualified from the competition for losing intentionally for the purpose of gaining a better seeding in the elimination round. Some have suggested this taints badminton, but it's not the sport that's the problem; it's the tournament format.

Badminton was using a format that several sports at the Olympics are using and that has been used in international racquetball competitions. They had an initial preliminary round of competition that was then used to seed teams for an elimination round. This is a reasonable way of setting up a tournament when you aren't sure of what the seeding should be, as the preliminary round will give you an idea of how the players compare to each other.

The problem lies in how you use the preliminary round results for the elimination round. In the case of badminton at the Olympics this year, they had one option mapped out. If you finished 1st or 2nd in your preliminary group, then you qualified for the elimination (medal) round, and you knew where you would be in the elimination draw.

In such a system, people's natural competitiveness may come through and they may think finishing 2nd in a group is better than 1st if it means they avoid playing what they feel is a weaker team. Or and this also came into play in the badminton competition, if a country has two teams in the competition (as some countries did), then the country would likely prefer to have its teams on opposite sides of the draw so that they could not meet until the final. No one wants to play their team-mates in, say, the quarter finals.

Could this happen in other sports? Yes, and it has. International soccer (football) competitions use a group stage and then an elimination stage at most of their competitions, but they now have the final group stage games played simultaneously so that the team's do not the know the results of the other game, which will effect their final group position and qualifying for the elimination (knockout) stage.

They made this change after a match in the European Championships some years ago where the two teams played their last group stage match to a result that they knew would have them both qualify for the elimination round, as the results of the other final match in their group were known because it had been played much earlier.

As in the London Olympic's badminton competition, the paying public could see what was going on and voiced their displeasure at it.

Could this happen in racquetball? There have been suggestions that it has happened in international racquetball competitions. Most recently, there were rumours that countries at last year's Junior World Racquetball Championships were trying to 'manage' their last group stage matches to gain a more favourable elimination round draw.

However, what the International Racquetball Federation (IRF) did was to introduce some uncertainty into the draw process. What they did was to say that the group match results would produce the elimination round under either conditions A or B. The top seeds were the same in each case, but for everyone else there was some uncertainty as to whether you would end up on the top or bottom of the draw.

Which format was used was not determined until after all the group stage matches were complete. At that point, a representative from each country was called upon to witness the random process that determined whether A or B was the format to be used for each division. Thus, no one knew ahead of time with 100% certainty where they would end up in the elimination round.

If such a process had been used by badminton in London, then the likelihood of having the gamesmanship of intentionally losing would have been reduced if not completely eliminated.

Sporting events are inherently competitive, and it should surprise no one if people's competitive nature leads them to try to take full advantage of the rules of play in their attempt to win. Event organizers should design their events with that mind, and create a format or schedule in which losing a match is not an effective way to gain an advantage in the event.

Because losing should never help you win.

Follow the bouncing ball….

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