Olympic athletes want to win — we all know that. So why are they being disqualified for trying to lose?
After the badminton scandal that marred the early days of the games, the latest athlete to be kicked out was Algerian middle-distance runner Taoufik Makhloufi, who walked off the course in an 800 meters semifinal on Aug. 6.
Makhloufi got lucky. After an appeal, the International Association of Athletics Federations accepted the doubtful excuse that he was feeling injured, and reinstated him. The next day, Makhloufi won the gold medal in the 1,500 meters by almost three-quarters of a second.
That was not the performance of an injured man. Makhloufi hadn't wanted to run the 800 at all. For some reason, his team had left him in it. Clearly, Makhloufi knew his chances of winning gold in the 1,500 could be harmed by running the 800, which he had little chance to win. He was acting rationally in giving up. For that matter, so were the Chinese, Indonesian and South Korean badminton players who tried to throw early-round matches for a better draw in subsequent tournament rounds. So was the Japanese women's soccer team, which benched all but four starters and played for a tie against South Africa to avoid having to travel to Scotland for its next match.
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Why, exactly, do we have the instinct that acting rationally in order to win violates the “Olympic spirit”? The rules of the International Association of Athletics Federations, which governs Makhloufi's races, demand that athletes “compete honestly with bona fide effort” or face mandatory elimination from future events in the same competition. The badminton rules are roughly the same.
Of course, all the athletes in question were putting in a bona fide effort to win gold medals. They just believed that the best way to do it was to focus themselves on the main event and put themselves in the best possible position for it. That path took them through a less than fully competitive effort in earlier matches or races. There was nothing inherently dishonest about their efforts, except that the rules require them to lie if they want to have the best possible chance of winning.
One possibility — the one the Olympic authorities would no doubt like us to embrace — is that competitors should go all- out at all times, treating each moment of competition as sacred. After all, the Olympics have their origins in ancient religious ritual, and today sport can seem very much like a secular faith, complete with rituals like sacred flame and a solemn Olympic oath.
The problem with this ideal is that it does not match reality. We see strategic competition all the time in sports, including the Olympics — and ordinarily, it does not bother us much, if at all. We compliment the intelligence of runners and swimmers who pace themselves in preliminary heats, rather than expending all of their energies. We accept the intentional walk in baseball as part of the game, even though it represents the opposite of bona fide competition between pitcher and batter. We even accept that professional basketball and football teams will play their scrubs and accept near-certain defeat once they have made the playoffs — not just to protect against injury, but sometimes even to get a better playoff draw by losing.
Perhaps it could be argued that the badminton players, at least, violated the spirit of the tournament, which was designed so that the qualifiers from the initial pool would then compete in the next round according to a predetermined set of rankings. Yet it was the tournament's design that created the incentive for the teams to lose. In essence, the matches that the players were attempting to throw were exhibitions: All the teams involved had already qualified for the next round.
Indeed, it could be argued that Makhloufi's tanking (if that's what it was) was worse than that of the badminton players. At least they were easing up within the context of the same tournament they sought to win. The runner, by contrast, was throwing one event to have a better chance of winning an entirely different one.
The persistence of strategic competition despite the rules against it suggests another reason that the Olympic Games condemn the practice: the entertainment value. The Olympics are a big business, and organizers want the spectators to get their money's worth. London Olympics Chairman Sebastian Coe inadvertently revealed this motive when he commented after the badminton scandal, “Who wants to sit through something like that?”
By this logic, there is nothing sacrosanct about Olympic effort except that the spectators have paid good money to watch it while the networks and the sponsors have paid vast sums to show it. Far from embodying the aspiration to pure sport, the athletes are entertainers. As entertainers, they owe their responsibility not to ultimate victory but to putting on a good show at any moment when a paying customer might be watching.
Once the underlying economic motive emerges, it's easy to see that there is a conflict between our interests as consumers and the athletes' as producers of value. From the athletes' perspective, ultimate victory really is the goal. Not only do they want victory for its own sake, but their future earning capacity depends on winning gold. A runner such as Makhloufi can expect his appearance fees to go up significantly if he is an Olympic champion. We, on the other hand, want to be treated constantly to the spectacle of total effort — of the kind we might never use ourselves in our own strategy-suffused lives.
Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of “Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices,” is a Bloomberg View columnist.