Olympic sports and failure

I wanted to post some follow-up to my prior post about sports where the contestants go to the edge and fall down. As I see it, the sports fall into the following rough classes:

  1. You push as hard as you can. The athlete who does the best — goes higher, stronger, faster — wins. The 100 metres is a perfect example.
  2. You push hard, but you must make judgments as you compete, such as how hard to push, when to pass etc. If you judge incorrectly, it lowers your final performance, but only modestly.
  3. You must judge your abilities and the condition of the course and your equipment, and choose what is difficult enough to score well, but which you can be confident you will execute. To win, you must skate (literally or figuratively) close to the edge of what you can do. If you misjudge, or have bad luck, you are penalized significantly, and will move from 1st place to the rear of the pack.

My main concern is with sports in the third group, like figure skating, half-pipe and many others, including most of the judged sports with degrees of difficulty. The concern is that sudden shift from leader to loser because you did what you are supposed to do — go close to the edge. Medals come from either being greatly superior, knowing your edge very well, which is the intention, or from being lucky that particular day — which I think is not the intention.

Many sports seek to get around this. In high jump and pole vault, you just keep raising the bar until you can’t get over it, and somebody gets over the highest bar. This is a good system, but difficult when a sport takes a long time or is draining to do even once. You could do a figure skating contest where they all keep trying more and more difficult moves until they all fail but one, but it would take a long time, be draining, and cause injuries as there is no foam pit like in high jump.

Other sports try to solve this by letting you do 2 or more runs, and taking the best run. This is good, but we also have an instinct that the person who can do it twice is better than the one who did it once and fell down the other time. Sports that sum up several times demand consistent performance, which is good, but in essence they also put a major punishment on a single failure, perhaps an even greater one. This approach requires you be a touch conservative, just under your edge, so you know you will deliver several very good runs, and beat somebody who dares beyond their ability, but falls in one or more runs. At least it reduces the luck.

The particular problem is this. “Big failure” sports will actually often give awards either to a top athlete who got a good run, or to the athlete who was more conservative in choosing what to do, and thus had a very high probability of a clean run. Fortunately this will not happen too often, as one of the top tier who went-for-broke will have that clean run and get 1st place. But the person who does that may not be the one who is overall most capable.

Imagine if high jump were done with each competitor choosing what height they wanted the bar to be at in advance, and getting one try at it, and getting a medal if it’s the highest, but nothing if they miss.

The sports like short-track speed skating, which are highly entertaining, have this problem in spades, for athletes who wipe out can also impede other athletes. While the rules try to make it up to the athlete who was knocked out, they have a hard time doing this perfectly. For example in the semi-finals of short-track, if you get knocked out while you were in 3rd, you are not assured to get a consolation qualification even if you were just about to try for 2nd with the strength you were saving.

In some cases the chaos is not going away because they know audiences like it. Time trials are the purest and fairest competition in most cases but are dead-boring to watch.

Statistical Significance

There is one an only one thing which makes the best person win - statistical significance. That's why in basketball the better team usually wins, while in hockey it's kinda random. The more trials there are added up together, the greater the measurement accuracy of who's the best athlete.

In sports were athletes get big air, it would help to de-emphasize perfect landings, because that adds a huge amount of noise to the results. It also makes competitors go for less big tricks that they would if, say, the definition of a good landing was one where nothing but your feet touched the ground, which audiences like a lot better. Gymnasts never aim for stuck landings in purely exhibition performances - it's a lot of stress and work for them, and the audiences don't care.

It's not a problem

Unpredictability, or that failure to find the "statistically significant best athlete" is not a problem unless you consider it to be one. I think it is a feature.

Sports is really not about finding the absolute best athlete -it's about playing the game and finding a winner. That process is actually more interesting when there is imperfections in the system. Soccer is a low scoring game, but the most popular, and one of the reasons for this is that spectators and players always have hope in their hearts that they can win, even against a statistically significant better team. Some of the greatest victories and sports stories are made that way.

Even the 100m allows only two false starts, and therefore the best athlete may not win. Anyway, I don't think the best athlete should always win (except maybe in athletics, and not always). The best player on the day should win. Even if they put a string of those days together, they may not be the best athlete, but the best at maximising their performance relative to their competitors (eg Muhammed Ali).

Whom we want to win

Well, it is true that audiences pick favourites and want them to win, and of course in the Olympics this is often the athlete of their nation.

However, I do feel that some portion of the audience is truly interested in the gold going to the superior athlete, though your contention that they are happy if it goes to “a” superior athlete is interesting. I am sure if asked, the audience would all say they want it to go to the superior one, but their hearts may be elsewhere.

However, I always feel for the athletes who fall because in many of the sports, they gave up their childhoods and lives to be there. Now it is true that in figure skating, the other medalists will get pro careers, and so will the national and world champions, so perhaps it’s not quite all or nothing. It seems unbearable to think about devoting your whole life to being the best at something and losing it over the fact that on the crucial day, you fell and the other guy didn’t.

I think the system should say, “If you work to be the best, and you become the best, it will be rewarded.” I’m not sure I want the competitor from my country to win over you because you happened to fall and he happened to not.

Humans should trump the system

I guess I agree with “If you work to be the best, and you become the best, it will be rewarded.” but I think "the best" doesn't mean over time, but on the day.

I think for many sports the Olympic final is what decides who is the best. If one jumper can land them 100% during 4 years practice, and all others can only land 95%, maybe he is the best, to some. However, if during competition, he falls and another doesn't and beats him, then who is "the best"? If not the gold medallist, then you do not need the Olympics, nor centralised competitions, just a statistics engine. We would all be the poorer.

What if an athlete is ill or injured? Should the competition be delayed? There is no end to the questions of what may have been, had he not fell, had falling been punished less severely, etc. I also disagree that is unbearable if you fell and the other guy didn't. If your life hinges on a mistake like that, well, maybe we should indeed pity them. All the other athletes probably did just as much, but there can only be one winner. In the end, you have the competition and some will fall and some will shine, and there will be stories of fortune and misfortune, no matter what the system.

We all feel sorry for those who may seemingly deserve the gold but fall short. A tragedy. However, tragedy did not always equal failure. It's just part of the games, and part of life too. Trying to organize the system to ensure the "best" are rewarded - didn't we already do that by organizing an Olympics?

On that day

Indeed, these sports measure who was best, not on that day, but in that exact moment. The same skater often did a better routine earlier that very same day, but not while being judged and in front of the crowd. Yes, pressure is part of it, but is the one who didn’t fall truly even the best on that day?

The point is, some sports are not designed to reward the luck of not having a random failure so much. The examples I pointed out like high jump and pole vault accept you won’t get it every time you try, and give you 3 tries.

So I view this as a flaw in the all-or-nothing sports. Not that it is necessarily easy to fix the flaw. If figure skaters could get up and do their routine again, it would help but they would need time to recover or it would amount to the same penalty. High jump has that advantage that it does not need time to recover. The audience would see more daring routines, and more falls. In the case of figure skating, however, falls hurt. In practice they will wear padding. Athletes in a lot of sports that involve falls and hitting wear padding. The audience seems to want a dance competition so they would object to the padding, or so people believe, but that’s a very silly attitude at a sporting event.

Gold medal = best

"is the one who didn’t fall truly even the best on that day?" - yes, by the measure which counts - the Olympic gold medal. Any other measure sounds like poor sportsmanship to me, somehow.

The jumping examples you give are ones where the landing is irrelevant, although the number of failed attempts is (in the case of a tie). These events are judged objectively (the measure is absolute, no points for execution). I think you are talking about something different, the artistic events which are subjectively judged.

In artistic events, the landing is critical as it looks poor if you don't get it. I guess I just can't imagine Nadia Com?neci having three goes and still having the same impact on the sporting world, and I can imagine such a rule spoiling the events, with competitors deliberately falling if they didn't perform the routine at their best. A high jumper would never deliberately fail.

I'm still not convinced that the audience values (slightly) more daring routines over seeing an athlete fail to land it twice and then succeed. I guess we disagree.

That's circular

We are talking about what a gold medal should be, so you can’t argue, “a gold medal winner is best by definition.”

The Olympic ideal is not about what the audience wants to see, of course. However, things trend this way because the audience and TV networks in particular pay for the games. It is supposed to be about higher, stronger faster, for the glory of sport.

Audiences like artistic impression by athletes but they are pretty divided on how much of the score it should be. In many views, ice dancing (in spite of gold for Canada) should not really be an Olympic sport. In the 80s figure skating’s judging was considered a sham, it’s gotten better now other than the gold medal bribe scandal from a couple of games ago. Yes, audiences like doing it with flare and style, but doing less from an athletic standpoint so you can do it with more style? In most sports, that’s like the U.S. women’s snowboard-cross athlete (Jacobellis) who had gold in Torino and did a showoff move on her last jump and fell down. Tragic, stupid, and a result of not putting the focus on the finish line. Football players do their dance after they get the touchdown.

Gold medal == best

If you can question it then certainly I can argue it.

It seems then we agree that the one who wins the gold medal is the best, even if someone who took a bigger risk and then fell is considered by some to be better. It's not circular, I am stating the current definition and saying I agree with it, whereas you question "is the one who didn’t fall truly even the best on that day?". Land it, you win, you're the best. Fall, you lose, you had form and daring but you lost.

My counter-point is that you can't start giving people all these extra chances in a subjective sport. If you can't land it in x attempts, don't do it at the Olympics. Do it at a smaller competition. You don't have to set a world record at Vancouver, just beat all the other competitors - that's what you get gold for.

Sergei Bubka took his 3 chances and failed, a couple of times. Was he the greatest? Yes. Was he the Olympic champion? Not those times. Was it drama, as entertaining as hell? Yes. Was it objective and pure athleticism? Yes. Might he have won with a 4th chance? Maybe, but where do you draw the line? It was drawn a long time ago at 3.

I think that as soon as you have subjective judging, you have to take the athletic purity out of it anyway. Judges like certain stuff, you have to do that stuff. Audiences like other things, bad luck. Subjective sports should certainly attract a lot of criticism over how they are judged. Surfing aerials were not liked by the judges to start with, but now it is a key component.

Judging

I still find this circular. I am saying, we should examine and decide what is best, and that’s what a gold medal should be for. The Olympics get the attention of the world, and come only every 4 years making them even rarer, and that’s why people consider them the pinnacle. Not necessarily because of how they work.

Judging does make it harder to be sure you have done the right thing, but that doesn’t mean you give up entirely. You can minimize the judging, making somethings objectively measured, and some subjective, and work to move it more towards the objective.

One idea would be to move towards an event of “jump skating” which would be more like the some other events, with multiple attempts. Some judging still. But more athletic, and easier to see objectively. Leave the artistic impression mark for ice dancing.

Figure skating is as it is because it began with figures, which were finally eliminated from competition this year, I think. Figures were aesthetic. Then it started becoming more athletic, eventually leading to quadruple jumps etc.

Red Herring

I think the concern is somewhat a red herring.

First, I have the personal belief that "judged" events are not real sports, sports should be measured objectively (time, distance, etc.) - with referees to ensure the rules are followed. I realize this isn't a universal belief, but it has an impact on this issue.

When you enter the arena of judged events, you're already handed control over to people who aren't competing: the judges. You might be the fastest, strongest competitor, but perhaps the flavor of the month is spins, which is your weakness. I'm just trying to say that when you have judging, there is no longer a "best" competitor, there's just a perceived best along some subset of the possible things you can do. And that subset changes from day to day to week to year. Sure, the quadruple lutz (or whatever) is now a given for men's skating, but again, does being able to do that mean they're the "best" skater?

Men's snowboarding. The flying tomato did (IMO) lay down the best runs, but surely a part of his high scores were because of his fame/personality. If he'd faltered at some point (say, for example, on the last trick he did which nobody else has done), is it fair/meaningful to say, "i'll give him high marks b/c he really soared on everything else, and the trick he fell on was more difficult than anything anyone else was trying"?

I say "no" - you reward people who push the envelope and succeed. Anything else is playing favoritism.

Even in the objectively measured sports, trying to achieve an event where the "overall most capable" person is the winner doesn't really make sense. In high school I won nearly every discus throw in the head-on-head meets, yet when it came to qualifying for state I choked and missed out by 1 spot. Should I have been given the "overall most capable" bye and been sent to the state event? Sure, it'd have been nice, I certainly thew more consistently than the others in my city. Turns out I repeated that same pattern the next year (I did it 3 years in a row in fact).

Performing the best in a clutch situation is a part of sports. Trying to apply a smoothing function would reward consistency, but I believe it'd retard the overall competition because the winner would basically be decided before the event was held.

Yes, it sucks you win (or lose) because someone (you) did something that was off by 1mm and it caused them (you) to fail (hooking a ski tip and falling, catching an edge and falling in any skating, missing a shot in biathlon, whatever). But a part of competing is being able to push it to that limit but not step over the limit.

Sure, it means that you might lose any particular event... and if you're always pushing that limit and failing? You're not a winner, you're a consistent loser.

Curiously I agree and disagree

I also have a bias against judged sports. But no, I would want to reward the great athlete who dared something greater and failed. Once again I will return to the example of high jump. We want to see the greatest jumper, and give a gold for it. So the rule of that sport, and some others, is “go until you reach your limit.” I want to see White do the most that he can do, and not have him limit it because of the risk of losing everything.

With a short sport like halfpipe, I would be happy to see it like high jump. You would need an objective ranking of difficulty. Each boarder would come out and get 2-3 tries to do a trick. Then everybody else has to do a trick at that difficulty in 3 tries or they are out. Break ties with amount of air, or getting it on first try etc. You need to work out a way that gold is still awarded last, because in its simplest form, we would see White do his greatest trick, everybody else fail to do it as well, and then he gets gold, and then you work out the silver — not an order the audience would like as much, though of course long races like Marathon are in this order.

Want to award the best all-around athlete? Break it up into classes of tricks, and combine them like X-athalon.

Now, as to the role of performing in the clutch — I’m not so sure of it. I think I would rather see the man who can throw the discus furthest, not the one who does it furthest when under a lot of pressure. However, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid this, as I will only see that record setting throw on videotape, not live. So in that sense it’s part of it, but I am not sure that’s good.

"is the one who didn

"is the one who didn’t fall truly even the best on that day?" - yes, by the measure which counts - the Olympic gold medal. Any other measure sounds like poor sportsmanship to me, somehow.
The jumping examples you give are ones where the landing is irrelevant, although the number of failed attempts is (in the case of a tie). These events are judged objectively (the measure is absolute, no points for execution). I think you are talking about something different, the artistic events which are subjectively judged.
In artistic events, the landing is critical as it looks poor if you don't get it. I guess I just can't imagine Nadia Com?neci having three goes and still having the same impact on the sporting world, and I can imagine such a rule spoiling the events, with competitors deliberately falling if they didn't perform the routine at their best. A high jumper would never deliberately fail.
I'm still not convinced that the audience values (slightly) more daring routines over seeing an athlete fail to land it twice and then succeed. I guess we disagree.
greating

Art forms as sport?

I don't really get having art forms such as ice dancing at athletic tournaments anyway. Will competitive landscape painting be next?

Competitive Landscape Painting

You may never have seen Bob Ross, who would clearly have take the Gold during his lifetime.

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