The Olympics, Aly Raisman and clear wins vs arbitrary tiebreakers

Watching the Olympics has got me thinking again about a very old issue: winning, or more specifically how winners are chosen. The desire to find order, and if it isn’t apparent, to impose it, is deep in the modern psyche. We want clear answers and clear reasons. We want winners and losers. And we don’t want the winning and losing to be arbitrary, so even when it is, we pretend it’s not. If ever there were arbitrary results, the tied outcomes of several women’s gymnastic events at the London Olympics fit the bill. In contests that are judged by a time or measurement, if two athletes tie, they tie. But in some events, including gymnastics, scoring is a mixture of difficulty and execution, and when there’s a tie, the one with the higher execution score goes on top. Of course I can see the logic in rewarding the “better” performance, but I could just as easily see the logic in rewarding the more difficult performance with the same final score. (In fact athletes are strongly encouraged to attempt a more difficult routine in order to gain points, but then they’re punished for it in tiebreakers.)

In the women’s all-around, the U.S.’s Aly Raisman and Aliya Mustafina of Russia tied for third with 59.566, and that meant the one who came in behind would get no medal at all — fourth in the Olympics hurts. The bronze went to Mustifina because her combined execution score was 34.766 versus Raisman’s 34.666. Amazingly, with the balance beam on Tuesday, Raisman found herself in a tie for third again. This time she had the higher execution score and took the bronze. And then later that day in the women’s floor exercise final, while Raisman easily took the gold, Mustafina was tied for third and won the bronze again.

So, here’s my point. When Raisman or Mustafina got the bronze in a tie based on the execution score, does that mean they deserved it more than the fourth-place finisher? Does it mean, even in that one instance, they were the better athlete? Or is it simply that we need a winner and at that point we kind of toss a coin (by choosing an arbitrary reason to pick one) but convince ourselves that the choice has meaning.

It reminds me of a voting method used in some consensus-oriented decision-making bodies, which came up in discussion about governance systems at St. Lydia’s. In Third Legacy voting, a winner must get two-thirds to win outright. If no candidate has two-thirds after four rounds in which the lowest-scoring candidates are gradually eliminated, then you pick from the remaining candidates at random. The reasoning is that they are all qualified, none has broad support, and picking based on any narrow criteria would leave a large disgruntled minority.

So the attempt to find a clear answer where there is none is abandoned, and the voting body humbly lets go of control and accepts a random result. Some people when they learn about this think it’s insane. How could it be fair, they think, to give it to anyone other than the highest vote getter? But I can tell you that when I’ve seen it happen — when I’ve seen the one who had gotten 38 percent pulled from the hat rather than the one with 62 percent and everyone accepts this results and moves on — there is a sense of something at work that is more important than imposing order. There is a surrender of partisanship, a surrender of fixation on winning.

In the Olympics, the equivalent of a two-thirds win might be Usain Bolt of Jamaica in the hundred-meter dash, winning by a decent margin and breaking the Olympic record (and winning for the second Olympics in a row). Or Michael Phelp’s 200-meter individual medley win for the third Olympics in a row (of a total 22 lifetime medals). I’m not suggesting we use Third Legacy for Olympic contests, but a little perspective on what it means to win might be helpful, especially to the NBC commentators and their obsession with spinning dramatic stories, and their vaguely offensive medal count scorecard. Let’s all enjoy the rest of these fantastic games, remembering that unlike the Hunger Games, the losers don’t die; they live to compete another day.

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