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Posts tagged ‘Olympics’

A closer look at the Olympic bias against China

The facts just don’t stack up with charges of an anti-China bias at these Olympics.

Rare is the Olympics without controversy. The talk sweeping the Chinese, though, is that Olympic officials from the rest of the world are cheating to knock them back. The conspiracy theory relies on four incidents: the women’s doubles badminton disqualifications, the women’s track cycling team sprint, Ye Shiwen’s record 400m individual medley swim and the men’s rings. The incidents were indeed controversial, but on reflection, none of them demonstrate a bias of any sort.

Women’s doubles badminton
After four pairs, one of which was Chinese, did their utmost to lose their last group matches, the Badminton World Federation ejected all eight Olympians from the competition. The incident reignited a debate about the competition format—badminton is using group play at these Olympics, a shift from the usual single-elimination. Some Chinese media accused the West of a “double standard”.

I wrote a post earlier defending the BWF’s decision, but there is more to suggest that the decision wasn’t anti-China. The conspiracy theorists say that the fact that so many teams were also disqualified (two from South Korea and one from Indonesia) must surely point to the format, not the teams. Putting aside the logical leap, that same fact—that it wasn’t just China—contradicts the anti-China bias theory.

There was a prima facie case to eject only China. As I explained in my earlier post, the Chinese top seeds started it. The other teams just followed suit as a counter-strategy. (Whether this was the line on which South Korea and Indonesia appealed is unclear. China did not appeal.) But the BWF rejected that line (as I did), choosing to disqualify all involved teams: “they started it” is no excuse for unsportsmanlike conduct of that nature.

Chinese media have been far from unanimous on this. It’s the same debate that’s been raging in the West: was tanking a legitimate strategy or shameful violation of Olympic values? Anyone who saw a video would know that it wasn’t just “conserving energy”: they were deliberately serving into the net. While still debatable, that puts it a long way from the alleged “double standard”.

Women’s team track cycling
The Chinese pair had already broken the world record twice, but were stunned to have been relegated to silver after officials ruled their changeover in the final against Germany was illegal. The Chinese protested, writing, “While understanding your explanation of the commissaires’ decision… we believe that this… judgement is not in accordance with the rules and the regulations.”

They weren’t the first team to be relegated. The British were relegated for the same reason: a changeover just hundredths of a second too early. It was close, though the British accepted their mistake. Because it was in the first round, that put the British out of contention altogether. That seems to have been lost on those convinced the relegation was all about knocking China down.

Women’s 400m individual medley
Ye Shiwen’s performance in the 400m individual medley was extraordinary. Too extraordinary, claimed American coach John Leonard, who said “history in our sport will tell you that every time we see something… ‘unbelievable’… it turns out later on there was doping involved.”

Chinese were predictably outraged at the suggestion. Their anti-doping chief Jiang Zhixue said they “never questioned Michael Phelps when he bagged eight gold medals in Beijing.” Why can’t China have good swimmers too?

Mr Leonard’s suggestions are debatable but we leave them aside: their validity is not relevant. What gets lost on the conspiracy theorists is not only that Mr Leonard is not a representative of the Olympics, but that he was a lone voice. Every official who commented to the media defended Miss Ye. FINA, the sport’s governing body, went as far as to release a statement saying that “there is no factual basis to support this kind of insinuations [sic]”.

IOC president Jacques Rogge and British culture secretary Jeremy Hunt reiterated their confidence in the anti-doping measures. IOC medical chief Arne Ljungqvist, British Olympic Association chairman Lord Moynihan and London 2012 chairman Lord Coe even criticised Mr Leonard. They said, respectively, that “sport is in danger”, “I think it is wrong” and it would be “very unfair to judge an athlete by a sudden breakthrough”.

You would think the weight of Western voices defending Miss Ye would have satisfied the Chinese that the world is actually on their side. But they seem happier ignoring that support, preferring to focus on the single voice that fits in with the conspiracy.

Men’s rings
That leaves the men’s rings. The Chinese gymnast Chen Yibing was favourite to win the gold medal, known as the “King of Rings” in his home country. But Brazilian Arthur Nabarrete Zaniettia pulled an upset, edging out Mr Chen by 0.1 of a point to take the gold medal.

Western media reported it as an upset; Chinese media reported it as a dispute. Gymnastics is a subjective sport, so I don’t claim to know any better, though I understand that many commentators were surprised. For our purposes, let’s just accept that it was a travesty.

At first glance, it seems churlish to claim that this shows any sort of systematic bias among judges. China finished top of the medals table in artistic gymnastics: no other country hit four golds. Other subjective sports show a similar story. In diving, China pulled six of the eight golds on offer. In the trampoline, six of the eight medals went to China. If judges are trying to be biased against China, they’re doing a poor job of it.

Those statistics are, again, conveniently ignored by conspiracy theorists. But let’s play devil’s advocate. Maybe bias is more subtle: it only really affects the results in close, 50-50 calls. China’s other victories just show their genuine superiority.

That conception of bias would contradict anti-China claims. Firstly, the outraged Chinese considered Mr Chen to be a clear victory, not a marginal one. Given that judges (unlike in other sports) have near-absolute discretion over the score, if they’re right that the rings judges just wanted China to lose, there’s no reason they couldn’t have used the same tactic in other subjective events.

More critically, though, once we concede that the rings was a close call, we must also accept that there was legitimate reason to award the Brazilian the gold. In that case, the only way to show bias is if 50-50 calls consistently went against the Chinese. No other gymnastics gold medal decision has been as controversial, but two of China’s other golds were within 0.2 of a point.

So where’s the bias?
Conspiracy theorists often ignore inconvenient facts. My efforts to point out to pro-Chinese friends when the world was on their side have been in vain. It is much easier, when trying to support a narrative that the world is against you, to ignore your foreign supporters and lash out only at select instances.

It’s natural and understandable, when controversial calls don’t go your way, to ask if officials just didn’t want you to win. But it’s not okay to ignore the the broader picture in your answer. Whatever the situation in global politics is, in these Olympics the facts just don’t support the notion that the world is biased against China. The conspiracy theorists should acknowledge this, then put it behind them and be rightly proud of China’s performance for what it is.


Incentives in Olympic women’s hockey: the last group matches

Is there an incentive to lose in the final group play matches here?

In the wake of four badminton pairs having been disqualified from the Olympics for trying to lose their game, the way the Olympic women’s hockey competition is shaping up is quite interesting.

At time of writing, there was the last match-ups in group A, and Argentina vs Australia in group B, left to play. Australia qualifies first if they win; Argentina qualifies first otherwise (including tie). New Zealand will qualify second either way (if AUS/ARG draw then NZL is second on goal difference). Whoever of Argentina and Australia doesn’t progress gets eliminated, so no weird incentives there.

For group A, I’ll explain the scenarios from the view of each country but it’s easiest to start with a table. Current standings in group A are: NED 12, GBR 9, CHN 7, KOR 3, BEL 2, JPN 1. In each cell, the first country qualifies as top of the group. The China–Japan game is before the Netherlands–Great Britain game.

  NED win tie GBR win
tie NED

* China qualifies ahead of Great Britain as the winner of the match between them.

China must win, not tie, in order to stand any hope of qualifying. Japan, on the other hand, has no self-interested incentive to win. So China’s got more to play for than Japan, so they should win, unless Japan for some reason cares about whether China or Britain qualifies. (Anyway, Japan’s currently bottom of the pool, so it’d be a gigantic upset if they won.)

The Netherlands will qualify for a semi-final no matter what, so you might say less is at stake for them.  They’re playing to qualify top rather than second (a tie will do), which I’ll address later.

Great Britain, on the other hand, has everything to play for. If China wins against Japan, then a tie won’t cut it for Britain: they must win to advance to the semi-final. If China ties or loses, then Britain and the Netherlands are just playing to qualify first rather than second.

So for the Netherlands, and for Britain if China ties or loses (unlikely), the two are playing to determine the ranking between them. In theory, they should both want to win, since qualifying first means they’ll face the runner-up of group B rather than the winner, i.e. get the easier game.

In practice, they might trust other things about their potential match-ups over the group play results. The group A runner-up faces whoever wins of Argentina and Australia. (This is the last group match, so Netherlands and Great Britain won’t know which one it is when they play.) So, if Netherlands and Great Britain would prefer to face Argentina or Australia than New Zealand, there’s an incentive to lose.

What might they prioritise? If it’s Australia, they might note that New Zealand beat Australia in group play (Australia will still qualify first on total points), or that New Zealand currently ranks ahead one place ahead of Australia in the FIH World Rankings. That might then be an incentive to lose. But remember, they don’t know if it’ll be Australia or Argentina. If it’s Argentina, they’re almost certain to prefer not to face them, given that Argentina are reigning world champions, second in the FIH rankings, and beat New Zealand in group play.

Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that Australia is a preferable (i.e. weaker) opponent to New Zealand. There are two things to take into account: the probability that Argentina (or Australia) will win, and the margins by which Argentina is less preferable (stronger) and Australia more preferable to New Zealand. Argentina is probably more likely to win, and the ARG>NZL margin is probably bigger than the NZL>AUS margin. Both of these factors make it better for Great Britain and the Netherlands to win their match against each other to book a guaranteed place against New Zealand.

So in the women’s hockey competition, even if we ignore the group rankings themselves and look elsewhere to weigh up opponents (an approach which I rejected in my post on badminton), none of the remaining matches seem to give any team an incentive to lose.  Sorry the result of the analysis wasn’t more exciting, but at least we know the games will be!

Why group play isn’t to blame for badminton woes

The match-throwing in Olympic badminton was neither inevitable nor defensible. Here’s why.

Of the many opinions flying about in the aftermath of the BWF’s decision to disqualify eight Olympians, including the top seeds, a recurring theme is to point the finger at the BWF for introducing a new competition format. In previous Olympics, the competition has been straight-elimination. In 2012, badminton used group play.  Exactly the same format is used in football, and similar formats are used in most Olympic team sports, but that doesn’t seem to have dawned on critics.

How group play’s supposed to work
Let’s look at how the format works. The sixteen teams are divided into four groups (A, B, C and D), so that one of each of the top four seeds is in each group. The winner of each group plays the runner-up of another group in the quarter-finals:

A1 vs C2 Semi-final 1 Final
B1 vs D2
C1 vs A2 Semi-final 2
D1 vs B2

The first seed is put in group A and the second seed in group D. That way, in theory, assuming higher seeds beat lower seeds, the first seed should finish group play as A1, beat C2 in the quarters and beat fourth-seed B1 in the semis. The second seed should emerge as D1, beat B2 in the quarters and third-seed C1 in the semis. That would see the top two seeds face each other in the final. So the “ideal” knockout progression, with seeds in square brackets, looks like this:

A1 [1] vs C2 A1 [1] vs B1 [4] A1 [1] vs D1 [2]
B1 [4] vs D2
C1 [3] vs A2 C1 [3] vs D1 [2]
D1 [2] vs B2

There’s no theoretical incentive to lose a match, because finishing second in your group means facing the top team from another group in the quarter-finals. This, you might notice, is contrary to how the four loss-seeking teams in the Olympics felt.

When the Danes pulled an upset
So what went “wrong” in the Olympics? The unseeded Danish pair pulled an upset victory over the Chinese second seeds, 22–20 21–12, to top group D. So the Danes (Juhl/Pedersen) were D1 and the Chinese second seeds (Tian/Zhao) D2.

The last group A and C matches came after group D. By this time, it was clear which two teams in each of groups A and C would advance to the quarters. The last matches would decide only who would face who, i.e. which way around A1 and A2 would be (and C1/C2).  So we have:

A1 [theoretically 1]
Semi-final 1 Final
B1 Cheng/Chien (TPE)
D2 Tian/Zhao [2] (CHN)
C1 [theoretically 3]
Semi-final 2
D1 Juhl/Pedersen (DEN)
B2 Fujii/Kakiiwa [4] (JPN)

The group A decider was first. A1 would (if they beat C2 in the quarters) see the second seeds in the semis. A2, on the other hand, would (assuming the third seeds win group C) face only the third and fourth seeds (group B also had an upset) before the final. So, contrary to theory, A2 has an apparently easier route to the final than A1.

But wait a minute. This entire analysis assumes that the seeding is the authoritative measure of ability. Specifically, it assumes that the second seeds would be harder to beat than the Danish pair that topped group D—and beat the second seeds themselves! This is the reason the “the system made them do it” argument is dubious. If the second seeds are hard, why is the team that beat them any easier?

The only way that would work is if the second seeds had wanted to lose to the Danes before. But that match took place before any placings were apparent, i.e. when it still made sense for the second seeds to want to win.

So in terms of self-interest, it didn’t make much sense to want to come second in group A. Of course, once the first seeds did throw the game, it then made sense to want to come second in group C to avoid them—hence the South Korea–Indonesia race to the bottom. But that was only there because of the group A farce.

The altruism factor
It’s possible there wasn’t just self-interest at play. The top and second seeds are both from China. The top seeds may well have preferred a semi-final against the team that beat the second seeds (i.e. the Danes) than their compatriot second seeds. Assuming the top seeds would beat the second seeds, this wouldn’t affect who wins gold. But it would affect who wins silver.

Consider what that means. In a competition where there is no second place, there is no concept of altruism: you have to beat everyone at some point, whether it’s now or later doesn’t matter. But if you’re going for gold and you want someone else to get silver, then you might try to set up your friends to lose to you at the very end.

Those who defend the disqualified athletes as “playing strategically” should bear that in mind.  For the Chinese top seeds, there was no self-interested logic in their actions.  The draw manipulation had to be about securing a gold-silver for China.  At this point, no competition structure except straight-elimination can function as intended.  All competition formats have to start from an assumption that everyone wants the best for themselves only.  By going for the loss, the top seeds were undermining that format.  That’s what makes their actions so unsportsmanlike.  (And that’s ignoring the disrespect for the sport, the spectators and the Olympics.)

The problem with straight-elimination
So the importance of second- and third-places messes things up. But just as it brings compatriotism into play, it also highlights the problem with straight-elimination. If the team worthy of silver happens to draw the best team in the first or second round, they won’t get that silver. Of course, we use seeding to try to prevent that awkwardness. But whether a third- or fourth-seed who upsets the second seed gets silver or bronze still depends almost solely on how the draw’s arranged.

It’s easy, then, to see why the BWF might have wanted to look at other draw formats. Incidentally, group play is also used in football, hockey, handball, basketball and water polo. Given that those sports aren’t ridden with deliberate losses—at least not as blatantly—it seems unfair to blame the system so quickly. The difference is that none of those sports allow more than one team per country. But we shouldn’t need to revert to single-elimination or one-team-per-country in order to ward off draw manipulation for compatriots. Asking athletes to fight only for themselves is neither a tall nor complicated ask.

Either way, “I wanted to help my countrywomen” isn’t an excuse and shouldn’t be one. Nor is, “But they started it!” As sad as it is, and as much as I can sympathise with the athletes, all four pairs who tried (successfully or unsuccessfully) to throw their matches deserved to be disqualified. The BWF did the right thing to save its sport from further embarrassment.