Tie goes to the runner?

June 25, 2012

Yesterday at the women’s 100 meter finals of U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh did something that was apparently unprecedented: they finished tied for third place.

Photo finish (Image from the NYT)

Usually, third place doesn’t mean much, but in this case it determines who gets to join the first and second place runners representing the U.S. in the 100 meter races during the London Olympics later this Summer.

Beyond the fact that it’s pretty amazing that cameras shooting 3000 frames per second (!) could not determine a winner, the craziest part of the story is that neither U.S.A. Track & Field (USATF) nor the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) – the two organizations in charge of managing the Olympic team selection process – had a plan in place for determining what happens next.

As a result, the USATF issued a statement yesterday evening revealing a remarkable decision: either the runners will race again in a literal run-off or there will be a coin toss.

The details of the procedure are somewhat complicated, leaving the runners with some say in the choice of which process will be used to break the tie. Basically, if neither one concedes the spot on the team outright, they can pick with method they prefer. If they both choose the same method, either procedure can be used, but if they choose different methods, there will be a run-off. If they both refuse to declare a preference, then the coin toss will determine who goes to London.

I’m entranced by all this because it’s such a classic example of how tie-breaking procedures often involve the explicit introduction of randomness into athletic competition and how that randomness contradicts many competitors’ and fans’ sense of fairness.

As anyone who has seen or read Moneyball can hopefully tell you by now, games are, by their nature, unfair and true randomness is a myth. However, part of the reason sports make such wonderful and compelling entertainment is that they involve a delicate counterpoint of meritocratic competition and stochastic noise. The distribution of resources among athletes and teams – such as money, skill, training, or equipment – determine the most likely winner in any contest, but so long as these variables are held relatively constant, upsets happen often enough and unpredictably enough that it’s still worth playing and watching the game.

Tie-break procedures can be controversial and unsatisfying because they change the rules in the interest of achieving something like a timely and fair resolution (case in point: the completely bizarro “Kansas Playoff” method the NCAA has used to settle ties in college football games since 1996). Often, this is done by introducing additional randomness through procedures like coin tosses. While this makes sense from a fairness perspective (given that the competitors have demonstrated that they are evenly matched by the time a tie-break is required) the use of coins or other transparently random methods to facilitate tie-breaking contradicts a widely held gut feeling that the outcome should be determined on the field of competition.

Ato Boldon, a former Olympic sprinter and now television commentator, captured this sentiment in his response (quoted in the NY Times story) to the Felix-Tamroh tie, “It’s like a penalty shootout in soccer: nobody wants it to be that way, but at least it’s still soccer.”

The obvious flaw in this reasoning is that coin flips and other truly random processes are far and away the most fair way to determine a winner when a race or a game ends in a tie! Penalty kicks, swim-offs, run-offs, Kansas playoffs, and whatever other overtime processes athletic administrators can dream up are, like all the games humans play, unfair at many levels.

Nevertheless, a coin flip at the end of a race or a game feels like a cheap deus ex machinaThe fact that most of us instinctively dislike the idea of using stochastic processes alone to settle a tie illustrates one of the ways in which we prefer athletic contests to be more like good theatre than anything else.

So, despite the fact that it probably isn’t really fair to either runner (and that their decisions may hinge on whether either or both of them manage to qualify in the 200 meters later this week), I hope Felix and Tamroh race again.

One Response to “Tie goes to the runner?”

  1. Hi Aaron,

    Love to see other Berkmanites following track!

    I think this is a weird argument you’re making. The coin toss may be statistically fair, but statistical fairness is not the point of sport. If it were, we would just go through a 137 round coin flip contest to determine which U.S. citizens get to go to the Olympics.

    ( Having a global coin flip tournament actually sounds like a really fun global crowd sourcing experiment — it would be easy to setup a site for organizing it, we could show the coins flipped for each round, generate statistics about the head/tail odds of various coins and currencies, end up with national champions for lots of countries for folks to cheer on, and so on )

    But that’s not the point of a foot race, which is to see who ran run the fastest. The reason a separate run off is a little dissatisfying is that it’s a secondary contest that rarely happens and operates under a slightly different set of rules (for sprints, the main difference is that the athletes have carefully peaked themselves for a particular day, so running a few days or week after messes up that schedule, and especially can be effected by other races run).

    The thing is that soccer playoffs and such are already built into the rules of the sports. So championship soccer players are not just playing 11-v-11 soccer, they are playing, planning on, and training for 11-v-11 + possible-shootout soccer. The shootout is fair because it is part of the rules, and both teams can plan and train for it. I get that there’s an unsatisfying departure from being able to have a championship just for 11-v-11 soccer, but that’s a logical impossibility, and I don’t see how introducing statistical fairness through a coin flip is more morally fair than having athletes compete in a closely related game of skill.

    In the running case, the closely related game of skill is much closer to the real game, so I think the case for the fairness of a runoff is much greater. Unfortunately, the runoff was not in the rulebook, so the whole thing is less fair in that sense. But then again neither was the coin flip.

    And a runoff would be really, really fun to watch in a sport that desperately needs more attention.


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