What is Competition?

31 Jul

What is the central point of competition? Tom Chivers says it is to win. While I can at least accept the premise, that begs the question of whether winning must be defined as the game at hand or if it can be more global in its perspective.

For example, did anyone think it was a bad idea for the Cleveland Cavaliers to lose games to make it more likely that they got LeBron James? Or for the Spurs to do the same for Tim Duncan? Or for the Colts to get Andrew Luck? Or for the Mariners to get Ken Griffey, Jr? Or for the Penguins to get Sidney Crosby? Or for any team to lose games to yield a star that will help them win games?

Further, do we complain when a team is “rebuilding” and knowingly plays players who are not as good right now in the hopes that they’ll be good in the future? Is playing a rookie quarterback acceptable when a veteran could win you a few more games? Would starting a twenty year old shortstop, whose best days are ahead OK, if your backup is a thirty seven year old whose best days are behind him, if the older guy is better?

Is it OK to intentionally miss a free throw if you are down two and there is only one second left? Is it OK to take an intentional safety if your team is up three with four seconds to go at the beginning of the play? Is it acceptable to intentionally walk Barry Bonds with the bases loaded if you are down two runs? There are times when the overall picture of winning encourages or even mandates the participation in something that is ordinarily negative. We even have a phrase dedicated to the philosophy of “Winning the battle, but losing the war.”

This isn’t exclusive to sports. In war, people often pick their battles. In politics, candidates choose which districts to completely saturate and which districts to barely campaign. Even at conventions, states withhold their support of a Presidential candidate, so that a given state can push him over the top. I recall being a student, and being judicious of which subject to study more. A famous piece of advice in cards is to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.

The reality is that there are competitions all the time where the team or person sacrifices something in order to achieve something greater, and we accept it with absolutely no questions. For the badminton people to get upset because someone logically looked at the bracket and wanted to avoid their countrymen, whether it was for perceived accomplishment assistance or just personal preference, there is a certain amount that must be accepted.

So, at what level do we insist upon people trying to win each small component of the overall competition. With the Olympic issue of badminton, the most damning part to me is that the ref warned them and they still obviously gave no effort. Beyond the ignoring of the warning, I’m not sure I see any problem with it. Yes, I want people to want to win everything they are supposedly trying to win, but sometimes there is a strategy to losing.

Some will say that the system is to blame. If it were a strait elimination they say, people would be forced to try. While it is true that people would be forced to try every match, it would also not guarantee as many matches, would be less likely to assure the best teams get second and third and give the fans fewer matches to watch. It is also true that a playoff is not a perfect solution. This particular situation would have been just as (if not more) benefited by doing a pure round robin where every team played every other team. Also, they could schedule all intra-country match-ups in the first round, so that they can only benefit their countrymen later by winning.

The funny part, however, is that the main offense is that they didn’t even appear to try. I guess if they were better at faking it, there would have been no penalty. I guess it is the next level of competition where people find reasons to lose, so those who run competitions just need to make rules against those things that they find objectionable, but we really need to look at what competition is.


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