Tiebreaker for the Olympic Games (Gamification Post #6)

Here’s a fun thought problem on a Monday afternoon, concerning the tie for third place in the US Olympic Trials.  What is the better way to solve the tie for the one remaining spot on the team, toss a coin or run it off again?  The competitors are being allowed to choose. According to my colleague at Saint Louis University, Eric Miller, the rules of games can tell us something about fair judging:

My claim is that the officials have a permission to use either method. What they’ve done is avoid deciding by delegating the decision over what method to use to the runners themselves: another permission (though of a different type). Judges don’t often have the option of delegating in this manner. But either method, coin toss or run off, is (in my view) equally supported by reason (and equally unsupported). The problem for judges (and other institutional decision-makers) lies in the fact that we normally want them to provide reasons, and, moreover, reasons that both support the winners and disfavor the losers. That is not possible where there are ties (or incomparabilities or incommensurabilities).

What do you think is the best way to break the tie?

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7 Responses

  1. Kurt Nelson says:

    I think it highly unlikely that an elite athlete, a competitive elite athlete, would leave their chance at making the Olympic team to a toss of a coin. They leave nothing else to chance. They have coaches and trainers who take all the guess work out of their workouts, they have nutritionists who structure their diets, they sacrifice much in life to achieve their athletic goals, so to think that suddenly they would say “how about a coin toss to see if I made the team”. I doubt it.

    They are competitors, so a run-off seems the only way anyone in that position would approach this dilemma.

  2. Miriam A. Cherry says:

    Well, just for argument’s sake, let’s say that it wasn’t delegated to the athletes. Or, that it was left up to the runners and they couldn’t agree (maybe because one runner knows she does her best when she is in a race with lots of competitors, rather than going head to head with one other, or maybe because one of the runners is concerned about injuring herself), which then would lead it to the coin flip.

  3. Kurt Nelson says:

    I still think even with your hypotheticals, these two women are competitors, and would be resistant to let chance play a part in their future. If one of these women chose the coin toss, this would be an admission of fear, and at this level, fear is not your friend.

    An injury can happen at any point, so worry about being injured is wasted energy. At this level, many athletes compete at everything they do, whether it is on the track, or mowing the lawn, this midset is pretty ingrained. I spent a couple of decades coaching elite teen athletes in alpine ski racing, and many of these kids, especially those who were really gifted, were very drive, focused, and unwilling to let much to chance.

    The only caveat I can think of is a judged sport, where subjectivity plays such a large part of an outcome. But, in timed events, it is always up to the athlete to perform or not, and nobody steps onto the start line thinking they are going to lose.

  4. Miriam A. Cherry says:

    Okay, so is this a fear of randomness, then? We don’t like to admit that decisions are arbitrary… as my colleague points out, we want reasons and rationality…

  5. Howard Wasserman says:

    It’s what you can control, which may not necessarily be the same as fear of randomness (athletic outcomes can be random at times). Note, however, that the automatic “of course you do a run-off” is tied to the event at issue here. The 100m is over in 10 seconds, so a run-off is easy. Imagine it was the 10000 meters or, worse, the marathon (although the distances involved in those races creates space and thus makes dead ties nearly impossible).

  6. I asked my five-year-old. She said, “They should just pick the one who was in front of the other person BEFORE they tied.” Makes sense to me.

  7. Howard Wasserman says:

    Ah, but that rewards the person who lost a lead and/or punishes the person who finishes strong (“finishing kick” is a big part of running).