Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

More problems in sports: Faux-sexism accusations vs. real problem

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Over the weekend, I encountered two interesting and contrasting sports events—Serena Williams levying another sexism charge and track-and-field athletes encountering true problems. These form an interesting contrast.

Let us start with Williams:

Williams played the U.S. Open final against Naomi Osaka. She clearly lost the first set. At the beginning of the second set, she received illegal coaching—and, in accordance with the rules, was given a formal warning by the umpire.

This warning, in and by it self, had no practical effect, except through opening the door for further penalties. Still, Williams reacted very negatively, appearing to take the warning as a personal insult and arguing with the umpire—the odder, as her own involvement was not necessary for the accusation to hold.*

*The infraction actually being committed by her coach, with her as an intended beneficiary. Indeed, in my understanding, her coach has since explicitly admitted to the infraction… We can discuss whether such punishment of the player is fair (in general), but that is a different matter entirely—as is the question of whether coaching should be banned in the first place.

As the events continued to favor Osaka, Williams smashed her racket in anger—and was now, again in accordance with the rules, given a point deduction* for a second infraction. Even this point deduction likely had no effect on the outcome, however, seeing that Osaka was clearly playing better and proceeded to win the next three points after the deduction became effective. Without out it, she would have had a 40–0 lead and three game points; with it, she had the game.

*It might be more accurate to say that Osaka was awarded an extra point.

This ultimately resulted in Williams starting a major row and calling the umpire a “thief”… She, again in accordance with the rules, received further punishment. With this third infraction, she lost an entire game without play, allowing Osaka to secure the set and match two games later. Even this penalty, however, likely did not change the outcome of the match: In order for Williams to win (all other events equal, assuming no injuries, etc.), she would have had to actually take the game that was not played, win the rest of the set,*and proceed to win the third set. Assuming a rough probability of 1/2** for each of these three events, her chance at winning the match was 1/8.

*Assuming that she took the contested game, we probably would have had a 4–4 (instead of a 5–3). They each did win one of the two following games, leaving a counterfactual 5–5 (instead of 6–4) and no-one with a numerical advantage. I make some reservations for memory errors.

**Discounting the respective level of play and the server’s advantage, this would be true. However, the higher level of play of Osaka would have given her an advantage with all three, barring lack-of-experience issues. To boot, I believe that the contested game was in Osaka’s serve, giving her a natural additional advantage. All-in-all, an estimate of 1/2 is likely too kind to Williams.

Of course, there are the mental effects to consider, but the only infraction that was even disputable (cf. below) was the original warning—and someone with Williams’ experience should not have been thrown to such a degree by such a minor event. Indeed, my personal suspicion is that she was already out of balance due to losing badly, which gave the event more fertile ground than it otherwise would have. Still, this second set was “only” a 4–6 loss, while in the other three sets that they have played (at all?, this year?) Williams has done even worse—including the first set of this match. It might even be that Osaka was hurt more by the mental effects…

After this Williams raises accusations of sexism… To my understanding (which might be incorrect, considering the nonsensical nature of the accusation in context), she believes that she would not have received the original warning, had she been a man. However, even if we assume* this to be true, it would (a) not automatically be sexism (just a very mild form of sexual discrimination), (b) it would not have given her any disadvantage. To see the latter, note that she was playing another woman and that the main issue is to keep a level playing field between the actual competitors; that this was just a question of in-game opportunities (unlike e.g. issues of who receives what prize money); and that the difference caused is likely to have been very minor. To boot, if men and women were to play by exactly the same standards, her own career might have suffered—imagine playing her many majors under best-of-five instead of best-of-three, with the increased wear-and-tear, the greater disadvantage of carrying all that bulk, and the risk that someone else’s playing style would have been better suited.** Then again, even if the events had been motivated by sexism, she still only has herself (and her coach) to blame: Illegal coaching might often be tolerated, but it is still illegal. No-one forced*** her to smash her racket, and if she had not she would not have received that point deduction, even with the warning. No-one forced her to insult the umpire, and without doing so she would not have defaulted that game, even with the warning and the preceding point deduction.

*I am highly skeptical, but I cannot rule it out without having done considerably more research. Possibly, such warnings are given to men just as often as to women; possibly, Williams’ case was unusually blatant; possibly, Williams had a history of such problems making her risk of being warned higher; possibly, other aspects of her own behavior influenced the matter; possibly, it was more a matter of who the umpire was than what sex the players had; …

**It is also notable, if not relevant to the immediate topic, that Williams herself has received special treatments, including, over the last few months, artificial improvements to her seeding relative what applied to everyone else. Her success during this time period give these artificial improvements some justification, but others in a similar situation have (to my knowledge) not received them, and they are potentially contributors to this success—what if she had been up against Kerber in an earlier round of Wimbledon or Osaka in an earlier round of the U.S. Open?

***I am well aware of how anger can get past our deliberate control, and I am no position to throw the first stone. However, (a) the rules were the same for both her and Osaka, so she had no objective reason to be angry, (b) the ability to control anger is a part of the game, just like the ability to re-group after losing a tie-break, the ability to keep fighting when two sets and break down, and the ability to keep focused when winning easily.

On to track-and-field, specifically the IAAF Continental Cup, which gives yet another example of the incompetence and contempt for the athletes that the IAAF displays:

This event took place between four teams, roughly corresponding to continental groupings, with two competitors for each team in each discipline. Looking at e.g. the throws, the field was halved to include only the best competitor from each team after the first three throws. Then a one-throw (!) “semi-final” between the remaining four was held, discounting the old results. The a one-throw (!) final was held between the top two from the semi-final, again discounting the old results. The resulting list of positions and throws in the discus* was

*The situation is similar or even worse in the other throws. The discus was my point of entry, because one of the victims of this idiotic system was my compatriot Daniel Ståhl, who ended up fifth, despite having the third longest throw—and who might very well have won the competition, had the regular six-throw format been used. (He is the number one in both season’s best and personal best.)

Position Mark
1 67.97
2 63.99
3 66.95
4 63.49
5 64.84
6 63.49
7 54.03
8 27.15

Note how the third-placer actually had the second longest throw and would normally have come in second and how the fifth-placer had the third longest throw and would normally have been third—together bumping the second-placer down to fourth. Normally, the fourth and sixth-placers, both with a 63.49, would have been in the other order, seeing (cf. source) that the latter had the better second throw… This looking only at artificial re-orderings through the flawed system, and discounting the improvements through giving everyone a more equal* and fairer number of throws, which could have lead to a completely different order—especially with an eye on the cut based on best-of-team, instead of top-four. Indeed, the system is so absurd that when (“first three’, “semi-final”, “final”) a certain throw is made can have a great impact on the outcome—the (otherwise) exact same series of throws can lead to a radical different classification when in a different order. To boot, the ideal order of a given series will depend on how the other competitors throw…

*In most competitions, a group of eight would have been given six throws each. In a larger group, everyone would have received three throws and the top eight after these another three.

Another problem with this system, especially with the very chancy discus, is that the competitors have to find a middle-ground between throwing long and throwing safely in a manner that favors those who throw later. Consider the “final”: We now have two throwers, with one throw each. If the first thrower goes out too hard, he risks a foul; if to meekly, he risks giving up several meters of length. The second thrower can relax, look at what the first thrower achieved, and act accordingly—and this can range from just putting out an extreme 30m safety-throw to going all out in attempt at breaking 70m. The advantage of throwing last is enormous.

Someone might argue that this was a team competition and that the individual placings were secondary. However, even discounting the risk that these idiocies are later implemented in non-team competitions, there are similarly weird effects on the teams. Notably, a team can have the two best throwers and end up with places four and five instead of one and two,* and going better than one and five is impossible. This is particularly bad, as the same does not apply to e.g. the track events, skewing the relative benefit of having good athletes in various events. Notably, it can make sense for a team to let its weaker thrower tank the competition.** Notably, once in the semi-final, the situation is as bad for the teams as for the individual athletes.

*Scenario: These two are first and second after the first three rounds. The leader joins the four “semi-finalists”, the second-placer is relegated to fifth place as the “best of the rest”. The leader does not get a valid throw in the semi-final, while the other three do; and is thereby relegated to place four. Note that this would apply even if the two went well over 70m on each of the first three throws and no-one else broke 60m during the entire competition.

**Scenario: The team has throwers with season’s bests of 70m resp. 65m, while all members of the other teams have a season’s best between these marks. The first round sees a foul from the former and a 63m by the latter, while all competitors land between 65m and 70m. The second round starts with a foul from the former, leaving him with one attempt to get a valid mark. As it would, with minor reservations for details, be better to have the 70m-thrower in the semi-final, the best strategy now is for the 65m-thrower to deliberately tank his second and third throws, so that the 70m-thrower can put a safety throw beyond 63m. If this succeeds, the better thrower is in the semi-final; if it fails, little harm is done. (On the outside, the 65m-thrower misses a chance to move past the lesser three members of the other teams; however, needing a new season’s best to do so, his chances would have been very poor to begin with.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

September 10, 2018 at 10:03 pm

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