Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘sports

With what right does X claim to be Y?

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Recently, I asked “With what right do[es] various organisations, groups of activists, and similar claim to speak for others? (And do they truly serve the interests of these others?)”.

Similarly, we might ask e.g. “With what right does X claim to be Y?” and “On what basis do others claim that X is Y?”.

Such questions are highly relevant for various political entities, e.g. relating to countries and cities. Take the City* of New York: Depending on point of view, this could be taken to legitimately mean different things, including (a) the buildings and infrastructure that make up the physical city, (b) the sum of all those who live within the city, (c) the area where these buildings, inhabitants, whatnot are located (with or without a prescribed border). What is meant, however, is often something illegitimate, namely “the government [administration, whatnot] of the City of New York” (or something similar). Certainly, politicians very often seem to fail to understand the difference between a city or a country as such and the respective associated governmental organisation(s). Indeed, in many cases, especially on the Left and/or during the COVID-countermeasure era, it seems that many politicians view the purpose of the country-as-such as keeping the government running, instead of the government to keep the country-as-such running, and/or are unable to perceive any difference between the two.** (However, the issue is not restricted to what e.g. politicians think, how politicians use a certain phrase, and similar. Often, the issue resides with the attitudes or language use of others, as will be clearer below.)

*Examples following such a pattern, here to disambiguate with the State of New York, are unusually easy to understand and, often, more “in the face”. However, the overall issue is by no means restricted to mere names. (Note that, in any given case, the official name need not adhere to such a pattern, even when the pattern is used colloquially.) The issue might be larger in Germany, where I have the impression that “Stadt” (“city” or “town”) is often prepended for the specific purpose of pointing to the government of the city, which is idiotic.

**The latter is strongly overlapping with totalitarianism.

This is the more frustrating as governments, beyond a certain and usually long exceeded size, tend to do more or far more harm than good, and as a world with parallel societies might be an improvement.

Particular signs of a faulty attitude on a city level include the nonsense of “twinning”* in the name of the city and excessive city-planning projects** that are often rejected by the citizens, do much damage to them, harm small businesses, would be better left to the commercial sector, whatnot—but years down the line give the politicians a shinier toy to be proud of. Then there is nonsense like “X has no place for racism/intolerance/whatnot”, where a small group presumes to dictate to others, including those who have lived in X for far longer, what they are allowed or not allowed to think in order to remain in X… (Off topic, this is the worse as what is called “racism” usually is not, as intolerance is usually far more common in this small group than among the allegedly intolerant, etc. Cf. any number of earlier texts.)

*This does virtually nothing for the regular citizens, but does give the politicians an excuse to travel, to play at being international “somebodies”, and to show that they are doing something. For my part, I view twinning as proof that the politicians/administrators have too much spare time and too large a budget on their hands. Twinning ties should be severed and forbidden, the money saved be returned to the citizens, and politicians/administrators either be set to do real work or have their positions removed.

**I still think back with horror at the way Düsseldorf tried to commit suicide during my years there, through one of the largest and most poorly planned turn-the-city-on-its-head projects that I have ever seen. The main cost was ultimately carried by the people, including those who had massive delays in their daily commutes for several years and those who ran mom-and-pop stores and found themselves cut off from their customers.

Similarly, consider sports and what organisations have what weight. For instance, yesterday, I wrote of Djokovic’s official return to the top, but what is the implication of “official”?* As long as I spoke of e.g. “official ATP rankings”, this was not a problem, because the ATP can naturally determine its own rankings. When we look at more general “officialness”, however, this fails; and it might even be argued that the idea of “official rankings” (as opposed to “official ATP rankings”) is nonsensical.** There is certainly nothing to stop someone else from posting his own rankings,*** and historically**** many have. It is not even clear what organisation should, in some sense, be considered the main candidate for “official”—the ATP or the ITF. (Similar claims apply to the WTA rankings, the WTA vs. the ITF, etc.)

*The modifier “official” is one of many to drift considerably in meaning over time, to the point that its use often borders on a meaningless filler. However, the most common meaning (or family of meanings) seem to relate to communication/approval/whatnot by some organisation or other, which becomes near pointless when the organisation is left out of the sentence or, worse, takes on something almost mystical when the mental connection to the organisation is forgotten and/or the organisation is implicitly seen as an authority beyond fault, doubt, and differences in opinion.

**This applies equally to e.g. cities: “per official city-government policy” might make sense, while “per official city policy” is nonsensical. (The shift in topic is only apparent.)

***Indeed, my own writings on Djokovic and his artificial handicaps amount to this in miniature, in that I point to him as the true number one—no matter what the ATP claimed at the time. (The “miniature” arises from the sudden end of my “rankings” after awarding the number-one ranking.)

****In the days before the ATP rankings and during the pre-open era in particular. Back then, there was a niche to fill. Today, the ATP rankings and the unification of pros and amateurs has reduced the need. (A case for a continued need might be made on the basis that the ATP rankings do not so much reflect “who is better than whom” as “who has participated with greater success in certain competitions than whom”, which can amount to very different things in some situations, e.g. when one player, like Djokovic in 2022, is unfairly barred from competition and the others are not.)

The ATP rankings still have some degree of “canonicity”, as there are no major other rankings and as the pattern of competition within the sport is so tightly tied to the rankings, but boxing is a different matter—and here we see that there are other ways to handle the issue than through a single, unified rankings and a single, all-important organisation:* Not only are there several competing federations that fill a similar role to the ATP in tennis (e.g. the IBF, WBA, WBC, WBO), which all bring their own rankings, but there are several “unaffiliated” rankings (e.g. by Ring Magazine, BoxRec, and TBRB), which are often taken more seriously.**

*Note that I do not necessarily call this a better way: boxing is a complete mess in terms of champions and rankings, and I would like to see it done much better before recommending the approach. The point, however, is that there are other ways to handle the issue.

**For a variety of reasons, up to and including suspicions that the federation-rankings are sometimes manipulated to achieve certain purposes. More generally, however, it is much harder to rank boxers, as they compete much more rarely than tennis players. A typical champion in boxing might fight once or twice a year; the likes of Djokovic have dozens of matches per year.

Or consider the case of athletics and world records. Looking at e.g. news reporting, it is not uncommon to see claims that this-or-that would or would not be a world record or that this-or-that would be a mere “world’s best”, because no world record is recognized. (Sometimes with, sometimes without our old friend “official”.) Taken literally, this is, again, nonsensical; taken as a short-hand for e.g. “[not] recognized as a world record by the IAAF”, it has some justification. Now, the IAAF* has considerable advantages relative others through its greater resources, great involvement with individual competitions, its status as organiser** of e.g. world championships, and similar, but it simply does not determine what is or is not a world record—only what results it considers to be world records. While there are no competing organisations of a similar type (like tennis; unlike boxing), others have other approaches. For instance, “Track & Field News”, a very notable athletics magazine and collector/supplier of statistics, has its own set of world records, lists of results, and whatnot, that, on rare occasions, deviate from the IAAF’s. (As well as its own world rankings, which often deviate.) Most notably, it did not recognize Randy Barnes 23.12m mark in the shot put, which the IAAF had as a world record for more than thirty years, preferring Ulf Timmerman’s even older 23.06m. (Both marks have since been exceeded without controversy, removing this disagreement as far as the current record goes.) For my part, I do not recognize altitude marks as world records, including Bob Beamon’s legendary 8.90m. Go back in time and there are plenty of marks near-unanimously considered world records that pre-date the very existence of the IAAF… There are also instances where a national federation can recognize a mark and the IAAF not, and similar complications.***

*I deliberate choose not to use the still far less known, too-short-to-be-recognizable, highly presumptuous, and even pretentious “WA” (for “World Athletics”), but I do note that this name appears to reflect exactly the problematic attitude that is discussed in parts of this text. Note how much more descriptive and non-presumptuous “International Association of Athletics Federations” is. (I have an upcoming text on use of names.)

**With reservations for exact terminology and roles. The idea is that it has its own set of world championships and that, to my knowledge, there are no competing world championships within athletics. (With reservations for divisions based on e.g. age groups that do not affect the “main” championships.) However, strictly speaking, and in line with the above, it is slightly sloppy to speak of just “world champion” instead of e.g. “IAAF world champion”.

***According to some recent remark in a forum, the IAAF might currently even refuse to recognize any and all marks not made in a meet on some IAAF-run schedule or calendar. However, I have not looked into this.

Looking further, consider the WEF (and maybe some similar organisations): This highly presumptuous and pretentious “World Economic Forum”, has no true status as anything. It is, for instance, not a UN sub-organisation, not derived from the G8, and not a global parallel to NAFTA and EFTA. Neither is it e.g. an organisation formed by the leading economists of the world, an economic and international parallel to the British Royal Society, an international scientific conference, … In fact, it was originally hardly anything. My suspicion is that Schwab applied the idea of “fake it until you make it”, used tricks like picking a fancy name to give the impression that the WEF was the authority, the “in crowd”, the whatnot, and then waited and hoped that sufficiently many would fall for the trick to make the claim match reality. Unfortunately, he appears to have been largely successful in this regard.

Excursion on the likes of the WHO:
Somewhat similar ideas as for the WEF and some sports organisations might apply to e.g. the WHO, especially in that the WHO appears to have decided that “we are the medical authority and you others should follow our lead—preferably, by law”, something recently pushed very strongly in the wake of the COVID-countermeasure era. (The worse, as a sole organisation taking the lead would increase the risk of global overreaction and reduce the possibility for saner approaches, as used in Sweden.) However, the WHO is a UN-run organisation and it is implicitly backed by or in interaction with most of the world’s governments. While I do not think that highly of the WHO, and while I have a quite low opinion of the UN as a whole, it is fundamentally different from the WEF’s “fake it until you make it”.


Written by michaeleriksson

January 30, 2023 at 6:00 pm

Sports and payment of men and women

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Apparently, the U.S. women’s soccer players are crying wolf about earnings again.

I have dealt with similar problems in the past (e.g. in [1], [2]) and will not repeat those discussions.

However, another angle:

Let us try the following: Just like there are different soccer leagues for men and women, institute two different federations. For all I care, make every single decision maker in the women’s federation female.* Now let us see how much they earn or do not earn. They might earn more or they might earn less than today—which I do not know. But: They will be exposed to the realities of economy and the connection between creating value and receiving value, e.g. that the ticket revenue generated and the revenue from television rights will affect who is paid what.

*They could probably get away with this: If the men’s federation tried the same, it would likely land in court for illegal discrimination and definitely be publicly attacked.

Ditto in tennis: Separate the men’s and women’s majors into entirely separate tournaments, run by different entities. If the women’s entities want to pay the same prize money as the men’s, they may do so. If they want to pay twice as much, I have no objection. But: do not complain to me, should they do so and find themselves running out of money.

From another point of view: If we do consider it unfair that e.g. female soccer player’s earn less than male, why it is not considered unfair that players of different sports earn differently for the same level of success? Why should e.g. a multiple world champion in bandy earn less than many (most? all?) titleless NFL players? Why should tennis players earn more than e.g. racket-ball players?

Of course, we could* institute some global rule for all sports and both sexes that give everyone the same amount of money for comparable levels of success, regardless of e.g. ticket earnings: Soccer players would take a severe pay cut—even be they women. Ditto tennis players. Hope Solo, do you still want “fair” pay?

*Defining reasonable comparisons would take a lot of work and might require restructuring some sports, e.g. by scrapping the tennis majors in favor of a single world championship—but the global rule is a thought experiment, not a practical suggestion.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 8, 2019 at 9:41 am

Tennis, numbers, and reasoning: Part II

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To continue the previous part:

There are a lot of debates on who is the GOAT—the Greatest Of All Time. While I will not try to settle that question,* I am greatly troubled by the many unsound arguments proposed, including an obsession with Grand-Slam tournaments (“majors”) won. This includes making claims like “20 > 17 > 15” (implying that Federer is greater than Nadal, who in turns is greater than Djokovic, based solely on their counts at the time of writing) and actually painting Serena** Williams (!) as the “she-GOAT”. The latter points to an additional problem, as might the original great acclaims for Sampras, namely a tendency to value “local heroes” more highly than foreigners.***

*But I state for the record that I would currently order the “Big Three” Federer > Djokovic > Nadal (for a motivation, see parts of the below); probably have Djokovic > Sampras > Nadal; and express great doubts about any GOAT discussion that ignores the likes of Borg, Laver, Gonzales, Tilden. I would also have at least Graf > Serena (see excursion), Court > Serena, Navratilova > Serena.

**To avoid confusion with her sister Venus (another highly successful tennis player), I will stick with “Serena” in the rest of this text.

***Relative the country of the evaluator and not limited to the U.S. The U.S. is particularly relevant, however, for the dual reason that authorship of English-language articles, forum posts, whatnot comes from U.S. citizens disproportionately often (measured against the world population) and that U.S. ideas have a considerable secondary influence on other countries.

The fragility of majors won is obvious e.g. from comparing Borg and Sampras. Looking at the Wikipedia entries for “career statistics” (especially, the heading “Singles performance timeline”) for Borg and Sampras, we can e.g. see that Borg won 11 majors by age 25, while largely ignoring the Australian Open, and then pretty much retired*; while Sampras was at roughly** 8 at this age and only reached his eventual 14 some six years later. To use Sampras’ 14 majors as the sole argument for him being greater is misleading, because Borg might very well have won another 3 merely by participating in the Australian Open—or by prolonging his serious career for a few years more.***

*His formal retirement situation is a little vague, especially with at least one failed come back, but it is clear that he deliberately scaled back very considerably at this point.

**I have not checked exact time of birth vs. time of this-or-that tournament, because it is very secondary to my overall point. The same might apply to some other points in this text.

***There are, obviously, no guarantees. For instance, as it is claimed that Borg suffered from a burn-out, he might not have been able to perform as well for those “few years more” (and/or needed a year off to get his motivation back) and playing the Australian Open might have brought on the burn-out at an earlier stage. Then again, what if the burn-out had been postponed by someone telling Borg that “your status among the all-time greats will be determined by whether you have more or less than 14 majors”…

More generally, the Australian Open was considerably less prestigious than the other majors until at least the 1980s, and many others, e.g. Jimmy Connors, often chose to skip it. The 1970s saw other problems, including various boycotts and bans (Connors, e.g., missed a number of French Opens).

Before 1968, the beginning of the “open era”, we have other problems, including the split into amateur and professional tennis, which (a) led to many of the leading pros having lesser counts than they could have had (Gonzales 2!!!), (b) softened the field for the amateurs, leaving some (most notably Emerson) with a likely exaggerated count.

On the other end, we have to look at questions like length of career vs. number of majors, with an eye on why a certain length of career was reached. Federer, for instance, has reached considerable success at an age that would have been considered almost absurd in the mid-1980s, when I first watched tennis—players were considered over the hill at twenty-five and teens like Wilander, Becker, Chang were serious threats.* Is this difference because Federer is that much of a greater player, or is the reason to be found in e.g. better medicine or different circumstances of some other type? Without at least some attempt at answering that question, a comparison of e.g. Wilander and Nadal would be flawed**: Both won three majors in their respective best years (1988, 2010) around age 24. Wilander never won another and ended with 7; Nadal was a bit ahead at 9 already, but has since added another 8***!

*Interestingly, I do recall that there was some puzzlement as to why tennis was suddenly dominated by people so young, when it used to be an “old” man’s sport. Today, we have the opposite situation.

**From a “methodological” point of view. It is not a given that the eventual conclusion would be different, because it is possible to be right for the wrong reason. (Certainly, in this specific constellation, the question is not so much whether Wilander trails Nadal, as by what distance. Is 17–7 a fair quantification or would e.g. 17–13 be closer to the truth?)

***This is written shortly before the 2019 French Open final, which might see yet another added. If so, fully half (and counting…) of his tally came after the age when Wilander dropped out of sight.

Or how about the claimed “surface homogenization”, i.e. that the different surfaces (grass/hard court/clay) play more similarly to each other than in e.g. the 1990s? Is it possible that the Big Three would have been less able to rack up major* wins, with more diverse surfaces? Vice versa, should some of the tallies of old be discounted for being played on fewer surfaces? (Notably, grass was once clearly dominant.)

*Looking past the majors, we can also note the almost complete disappearance of carpet.

Then there is the question of competition faced. For instance, with an eye on the dominance of the Big Three, is Wilander–Nadal a reasonable comparison, or would e.g. Wilander–Murray or Wilander-Wawrinka be more reasonable? Who is to say that Wilander would have got past 3 majors or that Murray/Wawrinka would have been stuck at 3, had their respective competition been switched? What if the removal of just one of the Big Three had given the remaining two another five majors each? (While the removal of some past great would have given his main competitors two each?) The unknowns and the guesswork needed make the comparison next to impossible when two players were not contemporaries.

For that matter, below a certain number of majors won, the sheer involvement of chance makes the measure useless. Comparing Federer and Sampras might be somewhat justified, because they both have a sufficiently large number of wins that the effects of good and bad luck are somewhat neutralized (“you win some; you lose some”)—but why should Johansson (1 major) be considered greater than Rios (none)? (Note that Rios was briefly ranked number one, while Johansson was never even close to that achievement.) How many seriously consider Wawrinka the equal of Murray (both at 3)?

Many other measures are similarly flawed. So what if Nadal has more “masters” wins than Connors? Today, these tournaments are quasi-mandatory for the top players, while they were optional or even non-existent during Connors’ career. Many of the top players of the past simply had no reason (or opportunity) to play them sufficiently often to rack up a number that is competitive by today’s standards. (But, as a counter-point, those who did play them might have had an easier time than current players due to lesser competition.)

Tournament wins (in general) will tend to favor the players of the past unduly, because many tournaments were smaller and (so I am told) the less physical tennis of yore made it possible to play more often—and not having to compete in e.g. the masters allowed top players to gobble up easy wins in weaker competition.

Looking at single measures, I would consider world ranking the least weak, especially weeks at number one. (But I reject the arbitrary “year end” count as too dependent on luck and not comparable to e.g. winning a Formula One season or to the number-one-of-the-year designations preceding the weekly rankings.) However, even this measure is not perfect. For instance, Nadal trails Lendl in weeks at number one, but has a clear advantage in terms of weeks on number two—usually (always?) behind Federer or Djokovic. Should Lendl truly be given the nod? Borg often trailed Connors in the (computerized) world ranking while being considered the true number one by many experts; similarly, many saw Federer as the true number one over Nadal for stretches of 2017 and 2018 when Nadal was officially ahead. Go back sufficiently long (1973?) and there was no weekly ranking at all.

The best way to proceed is almost certainly to try to make a judgment over an aggregate of many different measures, including majors won, ranking achievements, perceived dominance, length of career, … (And, yes, the task is near impossible.) For instance, look at the Wikipedia page on open era records in men’s singles* and note how often Federer appears, how often he is the number one of a list, how often he is one of the top few, and how rarely his name does not appear in a significant list. That is a much stronger argument for his being the GOAT than “20 majors”. Similarly, it gives a decent argument for the Big Three being the top three of the open era; similarly, it explains** why I would tend to view Djokovic as ahead of Nadal, and why I see it as more likely that Djokovic overtakes Federer than that Nadal does (in my estimate, not necessarily in e.g. the “has more majors” sense).

*A page with all-time records is available. While it has the advantage of including older generations, the great time spans and changing circumstances make comparisons less reasonable.

**Another reason is Nadal’s relative lack of success outside of clay. He might well be the “clay-GOAT”, but he is not in the same league as some others when we look at other surfaces and he sinks back when we look at a “best major removed” comparison. For instance, if we subtract his French-Open victories, he “only” has 6 majors, while Federer (sans Wimbledon) still has 12 (!), Djokovic (sans Australian Open) has 8, and Sampras (sans Wimbledon) has 7.

Notes on sources:
For the above, I have drawn on (at least) two other Wikipedia pages, namely [1] and [2]. Note that the exact contents on Wikipedia, including page structure, can change over time, independent of future results. (That future results, e.g. a handful of major wins by Nadal, can make exact examples outdated is a given.)

Excursion on Serena vs. Graf:
Two common comparisons is Federer vs. Sampras and the roughly respective contemporaries Serena vs. Graf. If Federer is ahead of Sampras, then surely Serena is ahead of Graf? Hell no!

Firstly, if we look just at majors won (which is the typical criterion), we find that Graf hit 22 majors at age 29* and retired the same year, while Serena had 13 at a comparable age, hit 22 at age 34/35 and only reached her current (and final?) tally of 23 a year later. By all means, Serena’s longevity is to be praised, but pulling ahead by just one major over such a long time is not impressive. Had Graf taken a year off and returned, she would be very likely to have moved beyond both 22 and 23. In contrast, Federer reached (and exceeded) Sampras tally at a younger age than Sampras—and then used his longevity to extend his advantage.

*Not to mention 21 several years earlier, after which she had a few injury years.

Secondly, most other measures on the women’s open era records page put Graf ahead of Serena, including weeks at number one. This the more so, when we discount those measures where Serena’s longer career has allowed her to catch up with or only barely pass Graf.

Excursion on GOAT-but-one, GOAT-but-two, etc.:
While determining the GOAT is very hard, the situation might be even worse for the second (third, fourth, …) best of all times. A partial solution that I have played with is to determine the number one, remove his results from record (leading to e.g. a new set of winners), re-determining the number one in this alternate world, declare him the overall number two, remove his results from the record, etc. For instance, Carl Lewis is the long-jump GOAT by a near unanimous estimate, but how does e.g. Mike Powell (arguably the number two of the Lewis era) compare to greats like Jesse Owens and Ralph Boston? Bump everyone who lost to Lewis in a competition by one spot in that competition, re-make the yearly rankings without Lewis, etc., and now re-compare. While I have not performed this in detail, a reasonable case could now be made for Mike Powell as the number two of all time.

Unfortunately, this is trickier in tennis than in e.g. the long jump, because of the “duel” character of the former. For instance, if were to call Federer the GOAT and tried to bump individual players in a certain tournament won by him, would it really be fair to give the runner-up the first place? How do we now that the guy whom Federer beat in the semi-final would not have won the final? Etc. (A similar problem can occur in the long jump, e.g. in that someone who was knocked out during the U.S. Olympic trials in real life, might have done better than those who actually went, after the alternate-reality removal of a certain athlete. The problem is considerably smaller, however.)

Written by michaeleriksson

June 9, 2019 at 12:17 am

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Tennis, numbers, and reasoning: Part I

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Preamble: This and a following text were intended as a single, not that long, piece. Because the length of the first part grew out of hand, I decided to split the text into (at least) two parts. Beware that a mixture of time constraints and the growing-out-hand left me lazy with the math—there might be errors through lack of checking that change the details (but not the principle), and there is a lack of explanation. (However, the math is not more advanced than what many high-schoolers encounter.) Note that I use the convention of ^ to indicate exponentiation, e.g. 2^3 = 2 * 2 * 2 = 8, and that “*” might be displayed oddly for technical reasons. (I normally use it only to indicate footnotes, and have not bothered to implement e.g. a math mode in my markup.)

With the latest French Open reaching its deciding phase, I have been reading a bit about tennis. A few resulting observations on tennis, numbers, and reasoning:

(Part I)

There is very little understanding of how probabilities play in when it comes to e.g. who-beats-whom, what is and is not impressive, whatnot. Notably, even many hard-core fans seem to jump to odd conclusions about superiority, inferiority, or who is too past his prime to be reckoned with based on a single* match. This is highly naive, even when we discount questions like surface preferences, off days, and whatnot.

*Note: “single”, not “singles”.

Consider a hypothetical match-up, where two players (A and B) are so close in abilities that the winner of each individual set is a 50–50 matter. Even in a best-of-five setting, this leaves player A with a one-in-eight chance of a straight set victory—and ditto player B. In other words, there is a quarter chance, that the match will be decided in only three sets and who wins is a toss up. Correspondingly, a single straight set victory does not necessarily say anything about the involved players. In a best-of-three-setting, half of the matches would be straight set victories and who wins is, again, a toss up.

What can be done is to look at “Bayesian probabilities”*, i.e. try to determine the probability of something based on observed events. Given that player A beat player B, we can suspect that his chance of winning is higher. Certainly, if the probabilities of a set win are shifted from 50–50 to 90–10, this would also normally result in player A winning, while a 10–90 shift would typically leave player B as the winner. (But note that even a 90–10 scenario can result in an upset, especially in best-of-three.) To get reliable information from such considerations, however, a fairly large data set can be needed, as in repeated meetings or a clear superiority in terms of games or points won in a single match (but not just the match it self or the sets of the match; of course, any single-match evaluation is prone to other weaknesses, like ignoring the possibility of a single “bad day”).

*Going into details would go past the high-school level and, frankly, I might need to refresh my own memory. The principle, however, is that (a) the probability of X and X-given-that-Y are not (necessarily) the same, (b) suitable choices allow us to e.g. calculate an expectation value for an unknown probability. For instance, the probability that the sum of two fair and six-sided dice exceeds seven is 5/12 a priori but 5/6 given that we already know that one of the dice came up six. For instance, if this sum exceeds seven at a different ratio than 5/12 over a great number of repetitions, we might conclude that one or both dice are not fair, and even attempt to estimate new probabilities for the individual sides of the dice. The “reasoning” used when it comes to some tennis “experts” could be seen as a highly naive misapplication of this, viz. that “A beat B; ergo, the probability of A beating B is 100 %; ergo, A will always beat B”.

As a notable example, let us look at the one official meeting between Pete Sampras and Roger Federer:

According to an archived version of official statistics, Federer and Sampras won respectively 1 and 0 matches (100–0), 3 and 2 sets (60–40), 31 and 29 games* (51.67–48.33), and 190 and 180 points (51.35–48.65).

*Including a tie-break each. Subtracting tie-breaks, we have 30 vs 28 and virtually the same percentages. Note that the set–game difference is likely increased and the game–point difference diminished through alternating service games (as opposed to e.g. alternating serve after each point).

Looking at the overall match, it tells us next to nothing. Indeed, had but one or two points gone differently, it might have been Sampras winning.* The games tells us a little more, but still nothing that could not easily be the product of chance. Only the points give us some truer indication (despite having the smallest relative difference)–but even that could be a product of chance or, e.g., some difference** in playing style or point distribution that is of little import.

*At least one example is obvious without looking at the individual development: Federer won the first set tie-break 9–7. Switch two points around and Sampras would, all other things equal, have won the match 3–1 (a somewhat clear victory to the naive eye). Switch one around and he would have had a roughly 50 % chance of winning from 8–8, and there might have been some earlier point in the tie-break, where even a single point would have handed him e.g. a 7–5.

**Consider e.g. a scenario where a player who already is a break up prefers to not fight back on his opponents serve, in order to save himself for the next set. (Whether such factors applied in this specific match, I leave unstated.)

This was a genuinely close match and even just looking at the game score, this should be obvious. (Nevertheless, I have seen this match cited as proof that Federer was better* than Sampras—notwithstanding factors like that none of them were in their primes.) Still, the margins on the point level are often fairly small and can still result in notable differences in overall results. For instance, imagine a 0.55 (i.e. 55 %) probability of winning any individual point**, and see how this scales. Winning a point is (tautologically) a 55–45 proposition and the result of a point played will tell us next to nothing (but the score over one hundred, two hundred, three hundred, …, points will be increasingly telling). If we assume that a game is played as best-of-five points,*** we now have a probability of 1 * 0.55^5 + 5 * 0.55^4 * 0.45^1 + 10 * 0.55^3 * 0.45^2 = .5931268750 or roughly 3/5 that player A wins an individual game (per the binomial formula). The difference in game-winning percentage is then almost doubled compared to the point-winning difference. If we now approximate a set as best-of-nine games****, the binomial formula gives roughly a .7189 chance of player A winning a set. Applying this to matches determined by best-of-three and best-of-five sets,***** we then have a match winning probability of roughly .8074 respectively .8610.

*This is another case of my disagreeing with the reasoning behind a claim—not necessarily the claim it self.

**Glossing over the complication that the probabilities will vary widely depending on who serves.

***This is not the case, nor is it necessarily a very realistic approximation. I considered making a more elaborate model, but deemed it too much work for a demonstration of principle. The best-of-five approximation is easy to calculate and requires no deeper modeling. To boot, it is likely to understate the difference that I try to show, which makes it more acceptable; to boot, the simplifications of ignoring serves might be the larger error, had I intended to find more exact numbers (rather than demonstrate the principle); to boot, any model of a tennis game that involves fix probabilities for all points (ignoring e.g. their relative importance, tiredness, nerves, …) is inherently simplistic. (An approximation as best-of-six might have been better, but would have involved the possibility of a draw, while best-of-seven might have overstated the difference.)

****Similar remarks apply.

*****Here the modeling is exact, because matches are played as best-of-three and best-of-five sets.

From another point of view, consider claims like “player A would not be able to take a game of player B”. Even when this applies to a typical match, it does not (or only very, very rarely) apply categorically over all matches played between them–again for statistical* reasons. Assume that player A is so much worse that he virtually never wins a point in his opponents service games and a mere 20 % of points in his own service games (making 15–60 a typical score for an own service game). This still gives him a chance of 1/5^4 or one in 625 to win any of his service games to love and .05792 or roughly 1/17 to win it at all by the above best-of-five model. This model might overstate the probability in this case, but if we say 1/30 as a rough guesstimate, and factor in that he would have at least three opportunities to serve per set, he would likely win a game roughly once every three best-of-five** or once every five best-of-three** matches. With a less disastrous difference, the odds improve correspondingly.

*Even discounting factors like player B gifting a game to be kind, player B having a sudden cramp, whatnot.

**Note that this translates to playing (three times) three resp. (five times) two sets under the assumptions made, because he would need absurd luck not to loose in straight sets.

This type of thinking demonstrates how unbelievable some of the exploits of the all-time greats are. For instance, to win forty straight matches requires an enormous superiority over the average opponent (and/or a ridiculous amount of luck). Prime Federer’s feats are mind-numbing to those who understand the implications, including e.g. ten straight Grand-Slam finals with eight victories—the full, mythical Grand Slam (i.e. all four tournaments won in the same year) is a considerably lesser accomplishment.

Excursion on other sports:
Some of the above applies equally to some or most other sports, e.g. the impressiveness of victories in a row. For instance, if an athlete or a team has a geometric average chance of 95* % of winning any individual competition (e.g. a tennis, boxing, or basket-ball match), the chance of winning ten in a row is 0.95^10 or roughly three in five, twenty in a row carries just a little more than a one in three chance, and forty in a row roughly one in eight. To have an at least 50 % chance at forty in a row, an individual probability of better than 98.28** % is required. Other parts do not apply, due to the unusual scoring (where e.g. a basket-ball game leaves the higher scorer the victor, while a tennis match might see the party with fewer points take the match).

*Note that this is a very high number, seeing that it must last for some time, is vulnerable to external conditions, must cover the risk of injury, etc. Moreover, the geometric average is more sensitive to outliers than the regular arithmetic average. For instance, playing seven opponents with an individual 99 % chance of victory and a single toss-up opponent gives a geometric average of less than 91 % but an arithmetic of 92.875 %.

**To understand how high this number is, note that it cuts the opponents chance of winning down to a little more than third of what it is for 0.95—an already very high number.

Excursion on probabilities, upsets, and the oddities of score keeping:
It might seem paradoxical that the score keeping used in tennis increases the difference in score compared to a plain point counting, e.g. as with Federer–Sampras above, while also increasing the probability of upsets. This, however, is easy to understand by considering the games and sets a division of smaller somewhat independent events into larger somewhat independent events. A reasonable analogy is a “plain” election system vs. a “first past the post” system.

This weakness to upsets is arguably a part of the charm of tennis, but it is a strong argument in favor of keeping important men’s matches at five sets and to introduce them among the women too.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 4, 2019 at 11:07 pm

On FIFA, IOC, et al., their abuse of athletes, and their approach to advertising

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During the ongoing FIFA World Cup, there have been several occurrences of teams (including my native Sweden—twice) receiving fines for allegedly violating advertising/sponsoring rules. (Reuter’s discusses two cases.) Apparently, even something as trivial as wearing socks with an “unauthorized” brand name can lead to sanctions… The restrictions placed on athletes* often reach a point where they are hindered even in their natural right of expression and free speech.

*Below, I will mostly speak of athlete and/or use the perspective of an individual sport. The case for teams and team sports is very similar, but differs in there potentially being different sponsors on the level of the individual team-member and on the level of the team. This complication goes beyond the scope of this text. (Another difference is that teams have somewhat better chances of breaking free, even though they usually remain the considerably weaker party.)

This is a continuation of a growing problem of abuse of power and an appropriation of rights, based on a massive difference in the relative power and consequences of choices* for athletes vs. organizations like FIFA. (Also see some previous texts, e.g. [1], [2], [3], [4].)

*If a team, let alone an individual athlete, chooses not to compete in a certain championship, its loss is usually far greater than that of the organizer. Not competing in a certain organizational structure/hierarchy can even amount to not having a career. Also see an excursion on “BATNA” below.

Notably, regulations like these can have a very harmful effect both on the earning potential of athletes* and their sponsors’ return on investment—and can even negatively affect the performance of athletes**. Effectively, an athlete is sponsored by a particular company or group of companies, receives money, free equipment, whatnot, and when the time comes to shine, when a global audience*** is watching, when the sponsors have the greatest**** shot at receiving something for their money—then some entirely unrelated company, possibly the greatest rival, swoops in with its brand name printed on the athlete… Here the organizers of an event are being outright parasitic, abusing their position to gain a profit beyond what they have earned, on the cost of someone else. In particular, it ignores the simple fact that the athletes are those who actually create the value and do the work—the organizer merely provide a means to tap into that value and to provide that work; it is a catalyst for something great, not the greatness it self.*****

*Note that this is not restricted to the immediate reduction of a sponsors willingness to pay through its own reduced return—there is also a strong component of uncertainty. For instance, what if the sponsor agrees to pay a certain amount assuming a certain set of actions on behalf of the athlete, and these actions are later banned? Such uncertainties can increase the risks to so severe a degree that sponsors reduce their offers in order to keep the expected cost–benefit ratio in check. (And, from an athletes perspective, what if he cannot consent to the conditions imposed by an organizer without being in breach of contract towards a sponsor?)

**Notably, through being forced to use clothing or equipment that does not match what is used on an everyday basis. Even being forced to e.g. use a pair of new shoes on too short a notice can be problematic, even were the shoes otherwise identical to the old. Alternatively, to be forced to give up equipment (including e.g. sun-glasses) for which no replacement can be found in sufficiently short a time (and which the athlete might quite reasonably have assumed were not covered by restrictions). Also note the below example from Wikipedia of NHL players not participating in the Olympics.

***Notably, an audience with a greater interest in the sport than e.g. the average watcher of a TV commercial—quite important for the many sponsors who actually have a connection to the sport, notably various clothing companies.

****In many cases, especially for athletes of lesser stature and sponsors with smaller budgets.

*****A reasonable analogy can be found in various Internet forums where someone provides a technical platform and then forgets that the actual value created on that platform, often outweighing the value of the mere platform a hundred times over, is provided by the forum members and their writings. On the other hand, a comparison with e.g. a regular employer–employee relationship is not suitable: While the employees often create most of the eventual value, this is only possible through the framework created, the resources provided, and the planning done by the employer. Remove the employer and the former employees are now unemployed until they find a new position with another employer; remove the IOC, FIFA, …, and the athletes would still be athletes, still compete, still gain sponsorships, … (Notwithstanding that more entrepreneurship and less conventional employment might benefit many in today’s world. I have vague plans to write something on this topic.)

This is an absurdity: That FIFA, the IOC, and similar organizations influence what is printed on banners in a stadium is one thing—that they presume to control the athletes in this regard is something completely different. A sane system would allow the athletes to use whatever* clothes and equipment they want, with whatever sponsors they have, and to similarly associate themselves however they like. On the outside, a complete ban of advertising might be considered, but this should then apply to the organizers too… Similarly, a strong case can be made that if a TV broadcaster has bought the right to broadcast a certain event, the decision what additional advertising to show during breaks should be the sole decision of the broadcaster.

*Within the realms of the reasonable, including after considering constraints that originate in the rules of the sport: I am not suggesting that a runner can blitz away on roller-skates, otherwise naked, and adorned only by a giant tattoo of a company logo.

However, even if we were to consider a control by the organizer reasonable in principle, the current state would remain absurd. Consider some of the contents of the Wikipedia page on “ambush marketing”:*/**

*Many of the examples broaden the discussion to include disputable behavior of e.g. the IOC towards other entities than athletes, which serve to describe the general attitude and the scope of the problem, even at the cost of losing focus.

**Unless otherwise stated, emphasis is by me.

[…]organizers of major sporting events have sometimes required host countries or cities to implement special laws that, going beyond standard trademark law, provide regulations and penalties for advertisers who disseminate marketing materials that create unauthorized associations with an event by making references to specific words, concepts, and symbols. Organizers may* also require a city to set up “clean zones” in and around venues, in which advertising and commerce is restricted to those that are authorized by the event’s organizer—specifically, the event’s official sponsors.

*Here and below we see a few examples of abuse of “may”, as mentioned in a text on problems with Wikipedia.

The fact that special laws might even be needed is a strong sign that something is amiss, that too far-going restrictions are intended, even that the hosts are being manipulated or blackmailed into giving undue preference to these organizers. (“Either change the law to our advantage or we go somewhere else!”)

As will be seen below, the “specific words, concepts, and symbols” can go far beyond what is reasonable.

That what happens outside the venues is controlled goes towards insanity, and can lead to absurd effects, e.g. that a near-by store must block out its signs during an event sponsored by a competitor. The Wikipedia page contains a few examples in this direction (not included in this text).

In some cases, a venue may be required to suspend its naming rights* for the duration of the event if the venue is named for a concern that is not an official sponsor, during which it is referred to under a generic name by all event-related materials and telecasts, and all signage referring to the sponsored name may be obscured or removed.

*That is, the us of a “branded” name for the venue.

Apart from the negative effect on the “venue sponsor”, this can also be a considerable source of confusion, possibly to the point of people going to the wrong place… I would also deem this illogical: A venue has a name*—end of story. Referring to it by that name must never be forbidden. If an organizer additionally provides a more generic name for its internal purposes, possibly at a point where the physical venues are not yet finalized, then that is OK; however, an obligation for others to follow this terminology does not and cannot exist.

*Venues are occasionally renamed, and this is legitimate when the change is intended for the indefinite future (possibly even for a two-year sponsorship contract). A formal renaming simply for the purpose of using a different name during an event, in an attempt to trick the “has a name” argument, is not legitimate. On the contrary, I might reduce the legitimacy of any “sponsorship renaming” in favor of a fix name with an addendum of “sponsored by X” in publicity contexts. (Note the highly confusing and more frequent changes of the names of events, where it might be “the Mercedes whatnot” this year, “the Audi whatnot” next year, and the “the BMW whatnot” a year after that.)

Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter forbids all Olympic athletes from participating in marketing activities for companies that are not official sponsors of the Olympics, even if they have official relationships with the advertiser, during a time-frame that begins 9 days before the opening ceremony, and ends 3 days after the Games’ conclusion. This includes advertising material containing “Olympic-related terms,” including the current year, the host city’s name, “Games,” “Olympians,” “Sponsors,” “Medal,” “Gold,” “Silver,” “Bronze,” “Challenge,” “Effort,” “Performance,” and “Victory”.

Note that this affects the athletes outside of their Olympic activities, both timewise and in relation to physical location. The time frame cuts away a very important part of a winning athletes temporary popularity increase, and is excessively long to boot: With the length of the games, themselves, about a month of time is covered—even for an athlete who might only have competed on a single day… The time frame is also unfair towards those who gain success at the beginning of the period (compared to those who do so later), seeing that they must wait that much longer, and have that many others steal the lime light, before they can gain from this success.

Further note that the range of words covered is extreme, often having only a vague and non-exclusive relation to the Olympics, and leaving the athlete in a such a mine-field* that it might be advisable to abstain from any public or advertising appearance in that time frame. Even those words that can be seen as having a sufficient connection are disputable through their restriction of free and natural expression. For instance, a TV add referring, even in passing, to an athlete’s participation in an upcoming Olympic competition would be a rule violation—despite not mentioning it bordering on the unnatural. Worse, an add that has spoken of an athlete as “Olympic champion” for close to four years, might now need to be altered for the duration of this month. Hell, even a “We are proud to be X’s sponsors.” resp. “I am proud to have Y as my sponsors.” would be out.

*For instance, mentioning a city of residence, a medal in a different championship (e.g. the European Championships), or even a “Victory” at “Dancing with the Stars”, could result in a violation.

An additional complication is that these restrictions are applied to sponsors, advertisers, whatnot by proxy: They have a contract with the athlete, the athlete has a contract (possibly of the implied kind, possibly over another proxy) with the organizers, and they still risk taking a hit* if rules like these are enforced. Indeed, the sponsor might not even have a chance to react, e.g. if a recently retired athlete changes his plans and decides to go to the Olympics after all.

*The description of the rule only mentions the athletes. However, there can be other channels involved, including the aforementioned “special laws” and the obvious risk of receiving a cease-and-desist demand (even should it not be legally enforceable). Specific examples (possibly based on another justification than this rule) directed at advertisers are present below and on Wikipedia, sometimes without involvement of an athlete.

Finally, note that the lists are not complete…

During a game at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, fans were asked to remove “Leeuwenhosen”-pants with lion tails colored in the orange of the Netherlands national football team, distributed and branded by Bavaria Brewery, because they infringed on the exclusive beer sponsorship rights owned by Anheuser-Busch.

[In 2010] 36 female fans were ejected from a game (along with the arrest of two, […]) for wearing unbranded orange miniskirts that were provided by Bavaria; Sylvie van der Vaart, wife of Dutch player Rafael van der Vaart, had modeled one of the miniskirts in an advertising campaign for the brewery.

Here FIFA presumes to dictate how the fans (!!!) are supposed to dress. If this line of reasoning was followed to its logical conclusion, paying visitors might be forced to remove or hide any type of branded (and some unbranded…) clothing, bag, sun-glasses, whatnot. Seeing that it is even more unreasonable to expect fans to analyse the details of advertising rules, chances are that some would be caught unawares, be unable to find a replacement* in time, and lose the opportunity to watch the event—after possibly spending hundreds of Euros on tickets, travel, and whatnot.

*Pants and miniskirts are good examples of things that, unlike e.g. a hat, would require some type of replacement, and where finding a replacement might take far too long.

The second part, again, demonstrates a veritable mine-field: Someone can, in good faith, wear a particular piece of clothing, only to be ejected over someone elses actions. Again taking this to its logical conclusion, it might be enough to wear something that merely coincidentally looks like something that had been used in advertising…

At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, […] ; logos of non-sponsors were covered with tape on equipment at Games facilities—a restriction that applied even to appliances, bathroom fixtures, elevators, and fire extinguishers.

So patently absurd that no comment is needed—except for the purpose of separating quotes!

The IOC’s restrictive ambush marketing rules were one factor in the National Hockey League’s decision to ban its players from the 2018 Olympics;

Horrifying, considering the presumed importance* of such players, how the results of the tournament might have changed, and how the individual players are reduced in their competitive options.

*The world championships (unlike the Olympic Games) tend to overlap with the end of the NHL season. Every time around, one of the main activities of Swedish reporting is a guessing game of what player might become available at what time, often with an implied hope that this-or-that NHL team will lose sufficiently early…

[…]; EasyJet was told by a LOCOG representative that having Sally Gunnell reprise her pose with the Union Jack from the 1992 Games for an advertisement would constitute an unauthorized association, an art event known as The Great Exhibition 2012 received threats from LOCOG for merely containing “2012” in its name, […]

The first example shows the problems with free expression and how the rights of individuals can be infringed—to the point that it, indirectly, amounts to taking ownership of Gunnell’s accomplishment and prior expression. The second, how dangerous word restrictions (cf. above) and attempts to quasi-trademark parts of free speech (also see excursion below) can be: Effectively, no-one else is supposed to use “2012”…

During the 2016 U.S. Olympic track and field trials, the apparel company Oiselle received demands by the United States Olympic Committee to remove social media posts congratulating Kate Grace […] because the photos attached to the posts depicted USOC trademarks, including the Olympic rings and the phrase “Road to Rio”. […], but [Bergesen] argued that their depiction were incidental because the offending material appeared in the venue and on the bibs worn by all athletes at the event, making it intractable to avoid depicting them in photos taken there. She also defended the postings as being news reporting on the achievements of its sponsored athletes, and not an advertisement for its products per se.

If the argumentation of Bergesen is rejected, another mine-field is opened and sponsors, possibly even third-parties in general, will be better of either suppressing expected or natural expressions, or severely altering them. (Here e.g. through digitally editing the photos; however, note that with rules similar to that of the Olympics, as opposed to the trials, a congratulation even mentioning the Olympics would have been a violation—while one not mentioning it would have been pointless.

Excursion on personal items, clothing, etc.:
The effects of restrictions like those discussed above will depend strongly on how broadly they are interpreted and how harshly they are enforced. However, it is obvious that the consequences can be quite absurd, e.g. in that even sun-glasses of athletes might be banned, that even the audience might have to pay attention to what it wears, whatnot. A particular interesting example is (the now retired heptathlete) Caroline Klüft, who was well-known for carrying with her a pet toy, to which she had a strong emotional connection. If the manufacturer of that toy was not an official sponsor, could the pet toy have been banned from the stadium? (And what effect might that have had on her?)

I note that concerns about a broad interpretation and harsh enforcement are not theoretical: There are enough examples given to prove that extremes are at least occasionally occurring. Further, in my understanding of the mentality of some businesses, I see extremes to be something of an expected case. Indeed, if this-or-that organizer could get away with prescribing what beers were allowed in front of the TV when watching the event, I would not be the least surprised to see such restrictions manifest…

Excursion on appropriation of words, colors, symbols, …:
That businesses try to appropriate certain aspects of the common realm* as “theirs” is nothing new, although the Olympic examples given above are quite extreme. A particularly annoying German example is Deutsche Telekom (the German “AT & T”), which long has referred to anything and everything associated with it as “T-[this or that]” (e.g. “T-Online”), effectively appropriating an entire capital letter—and has done its darnedest to do the same with the color magenta.**

*As opposed to creating, possibly through combination, something sufficiently new that a reasonable trademark is created.

**I am uncertain whether it formally has trademarks for e.g. the “T-[this or that]” template, or just specific examples. However, there is little doubt that threats would follow, should someone else try to use it.

To avoid such issues of undue appropriation, some type of law requiring a sufficient uniqueness even for “quasi-trademarks”, or distinguishing marks in general, would be very sensible, e.g. in that Deutsche Telekom would be forced to use “DTAG”* instead of “T” and be forbidden to using magenta as “its” color, instead having to go by a combination of colors in some pattern—or forego color appropriation entirely. Similarly, the Olympics should be reduced to a very small core, including “Olympics” and variations, possibly also the combination of year and city**.

*“AG” being roughly “inc.”.

**However, even something like “Rio 2016” or “London 2012” could very legitimately occur in other contexts, implying that such a restriction would have to be considered with great care, and possibly be restricted to specific contexts or to individual games with little “competition” for the meaning.

Indeed, even variations of “Olympic[s]”, it self, are a bit tricky: Firstly, (at least) the non-capitalized form is generic, has other meanings, and there have actually been other games using “olympics” than those arranged by the IOC even in modern times. Secondly, there comes a point where a process similar to the generification of a trademark can be argued, and where it could conceivably be undue to restrict the general use of some words or names. In that case, the conclusion would be to allow e.g. “Olympics” and “Olympic Games” as unrestricted terms, and requiring the IOC to use e.g. “the IOC Olympics”, etc., when it wants a “proprietary” identifier.

Excursion on BATNA:
Parts of the problems of athletes and e.g. business customers (cf. a previous excursion) can be seen from the perspective of BATNA, and BATNA might often be a better approach of explanation than looking at the strength and weakness of two parties. For instance, a typical billionaire might, in some sense, be more powerful than many sports organizations (but hardly the IOC). However, if he took up a sports career, barely managed to qualify for a championship, and made demands, they would likely be rejected, simply because of BATNA—the championship can probably do without him, with no or only marginal harm. (Discounting an artificial change in BATNA through large donations/bribes, threats of protracted law suits, and similar.) On the other hand, a superstar with an immense fan following (like Federer or Nadal) would have considerably greater* chances of achieving something, even had he just had a few hundred thousand to his name—his absence could have a significant negative impact on ticket sales, the number of TV viewers, general publicity, …

*That “greater” implies “great” is not a given, however.

In order to remedy such problems, a change of BATNA is necessary. What these changes might be, will depend on the details; however, in the case of sports, strong players’/athletes’ unions are an obvious candidate—losing half the athletes in one stroke is much, much more harmful than losing a single athlete here and a single there. If push comes to shove, a large enough proportion of the athletes could simply start an alternate organization/tour/championship/whatnot. (In the case of e.g. consumer protection, improvements would likely have to consist mostly of changes to legislation.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 14, 2018 at 10:54 am

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Interesting sports events

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There have been a few recent sports events that have been more interesting to me outside of sports than within:

Firstly, the European Championships in handball: During the time when I was the most interested in sports (late teens or so), Sweden was one of the world’s leading handball nations, often dueling it out with Russia. These days are long gone, and the world has changed sufficiently that Sweden’s smaller neighbor Denmark, an absolute nobody back then, is the reigning Olympic champion—something that teenage me would likely have considered an absurdity, even an insult, seeing that Sweden has racked up four silver medals without ever reaching the gold.

In the first game of the European Championships came the ultimate blow: A humiliating loss against dwarf country Iceland… I wrote off the rest of the Championship, reflecting on how sadly similar things had happened in tennis and table tennis, and noting how well this matched some of my thoughts on how short-lived traditions actually often are and how the world can change from what we know in our formative days. (Cf. my Christmas post.)

Today, Sweden played in the final of the same Championships against Spain, even having a half-time lead and an apparent good chance at victory. (Before, regrettably, losing badly in the second half. Still, a silver is far beyond what seemed possible after the Iceland game and a very positive sign for the future.) The road there was very odd, including the paradox of an extremely narrow semi-final win over Denmark, the aforementioned Olympic Champions, and another embarrassing and unnecessary loss against a smaller neighbor in Norway. Funny thing, sports.

Secondly, the immensity of Roger Federer’s 20th Grand-Slam title. A year ago, he and Nadal met up in the final of the Australian Open for what seemed like their last big hurrah—one of them was going to get a last title before age or injuries ended their competitive careers. Since Federer’s narrow win, we have seen another four Grand-Slam tournaments—with the winners Nadal, Federer, Nadal, and (with this year’s Australian Open) Federer. Indeed, where a year ago I was thrilled over the (presumed) last win, I was now slightly annoyed that Federer narrowly* missed going through the tournament without a loss of set. This is a very good illustration of how humans tend never to be satisfied, to ever want more or better**, and of how our baseline for comparisons can change.

*He entered the final without a lost set, won sets one and three, and only missed the second in a tie break. One or two points more and he would have had it. Such a result is extremely rare. (The oddity of 2017 notwithstanding, where it actually happened twice, making the year the more remarkable: Nadal in the French Open and Federer a few weeks later in Wimbledon.)

**Whether this is a good or bad thing will depend on the circumstances and on whether this tendency leaves us unhappy or not. At any rate, humanity would hardly have gotten to where it is without this drive.

An interesting lesson is the importance of adapting to new circumstances: Apparently, Federer has spent considerable time modifying his approach* to tennis in order to remain reasonably healthy and competitive even at his ancient-by-tennis-standards age of 36. Those who stand still fall behind (generally) and we all do well to adapt to counter aging (specifically).

*In a number of areas including style of play, racket size, and yearly schedule.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 28, 2018 at 11:15 pm

Usain Bolt and his place in history

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Yesterday, Usain Bolt had his last major competion. Predictably, even in light of mere bronze, there were many superlative statements made, many naming him the greatest sprinter of all time or even greatest (track-and-field) athlete of all time.

Depending on the exact claim, I am not certain that I agree, the main obstacle being Carl Lewis and the problems of making comparisons with earlier generations: Many greats of old competed in one Olympics and then retired to actually make a living, and world championships are a comparatively recent innovation*: What would e.g. Jesse Owens, Bob Hayes, or Tommie Smith have done had they had the realistic opportunity for a longer, professional career? (And what times could they have run on modern tracks?) Looking at athletics in general, many of the greats simply had no realistic opportunity to “double”, making comparisons in e.g. golds or number of world records misleading: For e.g. Al Oerter, Sergey Bubka, Viktor Saneyev, Jan Zelezny, …, to win even a single major gold in a second discipline would have been more impressive than Bolt winning a handful. Similarly, Michael Johnson’s 200m/400m career is likely worth more than a mere medal comparison would indicate.

*First held in 1983 and then at distances of four years until 1991/1993. Bolt has had them two years apart through his entire career. Carl Lewis, e.g., missed out on the opportunities in 1981, 1985, and 1989—where he would have been a clear favourite in both the long jump and the 100m. To boot, other athletes, including Lewis and Owens, have missed potential Olympics due to boycots or wars; Owens 1940 off his 1936 could conceivably have replicated Lewis’ 1988 off his 1984; Lewis would have been a very strong medal candidate and at least a weak gold candidate in the 1980 long jump.

Certainly, I would still view Carl Lewis as the greatest overall. His dominance in the long jump was immense, with one of the longest unbeaten streaks of all times and events, four Olympic golds (and gold/gold/silver at four-year-apart world championships), and a revolution of the non-altitude* world record. He did to the world record what Bubka did in the pole vault; to the medal record what Oerter did in the discus throw. Even without his additional sprinting efforts, the choice between Lewis and Bolt would be tricky; with them, it should be a no-brainer for Lewis.

*Unfortunately, the effects of altitude on results was realized too late; and where there is a limit on how much tail wind is allowed for a record to be valid, there is no such limit on altitude. This severely distorts the official record histories and those in the know prefer to look at non-altitude records. Lewis had to compete with high-altitude records in all three events, including Bob Beamon’s monstrous 8.90—which also has been questioned as potentially aided by an illegal amount of wind and a faulty wind reading. Lewis took the non-altitude record from 8.54 (Dombrowski) to 8.79 (and with an additional 8.87 in the same competion that Mike Powell set the current 8.95)—an improvement by almost 3 % or, correspondingly, almost 3 tenths in the 100m/6 tenths in the 200m. (I have not been able to find a list of non-altitude records on short notice. The numbers are taken from http://www.alltime-athletics.com/mlongok.htm, which has an exhaustive list with altitude indicators.)

Looking at greatest sprinter, I too would likely favour Bolt, but it is not as clear cut as some seem to see it. Apart from what has been already mentioned, we have to keep in mind that the 100m/200m combination, with the possible exception of 5000m/10000m, is the easiest around. Virtual any top 100m-sprinter has also been a top 200m-sprinter, although some have chosen to only rarely run the 200m. (Say to maximize their chances in the more prestiguous 100m; or to avoid an “embarassing” bronze medal in the 200m.) Indeed, the comparison with Carl Lewis is made harder because he deliberate skipped the 200m at world championships where he did win the 100m (and scored gold/gold/silver in the long jump). Looking at times*, (non-altitude) world records, and superiority, Lewis actual fares quite well in the comparison even in the 200m**; and arguably has an edge in the 100m**. The main argument in favour of Bolt over Lewis is the latters “weak” record in the 200m, with just an Olympic gold/silver—but since Lewis had less opportunities to build his record, this partially amounts to whether ability or accomplishment is prioritized in the comparison.

*Comparing times directly, as in Bolt ran X/Lewis Y is of limited benefit, due to e.g. changes in tracks. Instead we have to look at times in their historical perspective.

**I looked into the numbers a few weeks ago, but did not take notes (not having an intention to write anything at the time).

As for the 100m, Lewis took five out of five possible golds in the nine year span from 1983 to 1991 (two Olympic, three WC). With a different schedule, this could* have been eight out of eight (WCs in 1981, 1985, 1989; eleven year span). According to Wikipedia Bolt has a total of six out of seven (one miss!) in the nine year span from 2008 to 2016. Bear in mind that Lewis did this while also doing the long jump on all occasions and the 200m on at least two; Bolt also had a second event, the 200m, but never a third and the 200m is easier to combine with the 100m. Lewis improved the non-altitude world record more often, including the first 10.00 in history, and by roughly the same overall amount; Bolt has a larger difference down to the second best. Their respective greatest winning margin in a major championship (in my recollection) was identical. In my book, this is a narrow victory for Lewis; on the outside a tie.

*Note that I am not saying “would”. While he would have been the favorite, there are no guarantees, he could have gotten injured, had an off year, lost motivation with the more intense schedule, …

As an aside, Bolt’s winning record could conceivably have been a fair bit weaker, had Gatlin and Gay not suffered doping suspensions; but Lewis’ would have been weaker (in the 100m) had Ben Johnson not been caught.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 6, 2017 at 4:52 pm

Caster Semenya, human irrationality, and fairness in competions

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The last few days, there has been renewed controversy around Caster Semenya (for the umpteenth time).

Caster Semenya is a case that has interested me on an abstract level, because there have been so many proofs of human irrationality around it and a few somewhat similar cases, notably Oscar Pistorius. Again, this is so:

The latest round is a new study (c.f. e.g. [1]) showing that rates of testosterone affect the performance of female athletes—something that even semi-informed people would consider almost* a given without a study. A potential consequence could be that Semenya must undergo a drug therapy to get rid of an “unfair” advantage (or not being allowed to compete).

*There could have been some unexpected quirk involved due to the different way male and female bodies tend to handle testosterone and estrogen, or similar, but that is not very likely in light of existing observational evidence, e.g. that women do not only have a strong advantage from anabolic steroids used as PEDs (testosterone is a natural anabolic stereoid), but, arguably, a stronger advantage than men. Look e.g. at the age and level of the current world records in throwing events vs. the performance level of today.

This is a disastrously wrong approach, which would also imply that other natural physical characteristics, e.g. height, must by analogy be considered: Basket-ball players taller than, say, 8 feet should only be allowed to compete if they have a corresponding offsetting handicap. Ditto sprinters with too high a proportion of fast-twitch fibers. Ditto limbo dancers who are too short. Ditto chess players who have to high an I.Q. or too good a memory. Etc.

That way lies the world of Harrison Bergeron

The correct question to ask is not whether Semenya is an extreme outlier in terms of testosterone and has a corresponding advantage—but why:

If she happens to be an ordinary XX with a (in some sense) normal body, which just happens to have so an unusual* configuration that she is an extreme outlier, then she should be allowed to compete on exactly the same terms as everyone else. She does have an advantage, possibly an immense one, but that advantage is within the realms of fair play—just like a basket-ball player should not be barred merely for being 8 feet tall**.

*Say that she has simply won the genetic lottery—all the numbers just happened to go her way, in that she has a genetic configuration where unusually many stimuli are “on” and unusually many inhibitors are “off”. In contrast, the examples below are more comparable to someone who manipulates the drawing of the numbers.

**However, here too there might be some situation where the reason for the tallness could be a relevant criterion. Possibly, people with a pituitary condition might need a class of their own. (Not implausible; however, this would go against historical precedence.)

If she has gained her high levels through e.g. having male testes*, being a cross dresser or a transgender person**, or deliberately injecting testosterone*** then the reason for her advantage is such that the advantage becomes unfair. (Exactly how to resolve this individual cases is beyond the scope of this post. Whether, when, and against whom genetic configurations that are neither XX nor XY should be allowed to compete, provided that they are otherwise “normal” women resp. men, is something that I lack the depth of knowledge to judge, but they could very well be relevant for inclusion upon deeper investigation.)

*One of the rumors I have heard. The actual investigations made are confidential, which implies that this discussion must be hypothetical.

**Almost certainly not the case, but some gender extremists have actually made demands that biological men who consider themselves women should be allowed to compete against women—which would make a complete mockery of women’s sport.

***Possible, but it is unlikely that she would have gotten away with that for so long with the amount of scrutiny she has been subjected to. However, exactly this accusation has been raised against e.g. Jarmila Kratochvilova (the long retired world-record holder at 800 m, which is also Semenya’s main distance).

Of course, another possible take would be to abolish the separate women’s class in competitions, either entirely or through replacement with some other categorization, e.g. by testosterone level, height, and/or (paralleling many existing sports) weight. Somehow I doubt that the other female competitors would be happy with that solution… (And this could turn out to be impractical.)

The case of Pistorius is slightly different: Here it is clear that if he has an advantage, then that advantage is unfair. In a second step, it is at least likely that he does have an advantage*—and if he does not, then he or someone else will in due time. Determining with certainty when that time has come, however, will be virtually impossible, and there would by necessity be some period of time in which the “blade runners” do have an unfair advantage before being separated—unless they are separated at a time before this determination has taken place.

*Contrary to some naive people who have taken it for granted that he has a disadvantage and have reached his level of performance despite his handicap—rather than because of it.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 4, 2017 at 9:34 pm

Follow-up: Censorship of opinion, disgraceful sports organizations

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I make a post on Hope Solo and an outrageous and unjustified suspension, practically naming it the height of abuse, and what happens? More or less immediately a three-fold example that is equally bad pops up.

The French tennis federation has decided to suspend three of its players for allegedly damaging its image.

In one case (Benoit Paire), the crime, according to the article, consisted of “He reportedly sometimes stayed away from the village or came back late. He also made dismissive comments about the importance of the Games because there are no ranking points.”.

Here we have an adult man who “stays away” from a team location or sets his own hours—oh, the horror! Going by Wikipedia, he is 27 years old and has been a professional player for almost ten years—meaning that he is not only an adult, he is also used to traveling internationally, taking responsibility for his schedule, knows how to live his life when competing, … We are not talking a teenager leaving his home-town for the first time. If and in as far as he made any misjudgments (say, by getting too little sleep) that is his responsibility as an adult—not the French federation’s as a baby-sitter.

Now, if he had been a member of, say, a soccer or basket team, I could possibly, on the very outside, have seen a point, because he just might have damaged the teams coordination, training, spirit, whatnot. He was not a member of such a team: He is a tennis player, who competed in the singles (!) tournament.

As for “dismissive comments”: So what? Not only does he have a full right to free speech and opinion, but this opinion has considerable merit. By not awarding* ATP points, the Olympic Tournament is placed outside the normal world of professional tennis, and is diminished severely in value. Even when points were awarded, it was arguably only the fifth or sixth most important tournament of the year (behind the Grand Slams and, possibly, the Tour Finals)—and possibly not even reaching top-twenty over the entire Olympic cycle. Without points? I can understand very well how someone from within the tennis world would consider it a blip on the radar screen. This is not figure skating where the Olympics compares to the second best competition as France does to Luxembourg.

*I am not aware why this is so or who made the decision. However, since points are allocated by ATP (their tour and their points…), the IOC could be free of guilt.

The other two (double players Kristina Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia) apparently had the audacity to complain about incompetence on behalf of the federation—and appear* to have a good case to do so! This is one of the very, very worst signs of corruption: Trying to silence dissenters and sources of criticism through threats and sanctions, where, on the outside, solid arguments would have been used by a fair-minded organization. To boot, in my experience, the more prone someone is to censorship of criticism, threats against dissenters, etc., the more likely it is that the criticism is justified… The French federation does more to condemn it self that the two ever could.

*I do not know the details, but it seems clear that information that the two should have had was not communicated sufficiently early or sufficiently clearly. At worst, I would assume that they made their statements in good faith and in genuine disappointment and frustration, which might require an apology—not a suspension. At best, they are entirely right and the French federation tries to cover its own incompetence in an inexcusable manner.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 28, 2016 at 10:41 pm

Censorship of opinion, disgraceful sports organizations

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I have complained repeatedly about censorship, shunning, forced apologies, whatnot directed at athletes who express other opinions than what disgraceful and unethical sports organizations consider acceptable, or where athletes are otherwise forced into certain behaviors, e.g. with regard to when they are allowed to show the logos of their sponsors. Whether someone is allowed to compete should be a matter of accomplishment and ability—not opinion. With a recent incident involving Hope Solo, we have reached a point where the athlete basically becomes a rightless tool, who has to do what (in this case) she is told and otherwise keep her mouth shut—or she risks seeing her sports career severely damaged, without any regard to actual accomplishments within the sport. This to a point that she has effectively lost the right to freedom of speech and opinion.

To make matters worse, this is just a piece of a larger puzzle, where having the “wrong” opinions is increasingly becoming one of the worst conceivable sins (“crimethink” and so on), where people have to watch what they say online lest they be fired, where scientists supporting the “wrong” hypothesis, even on plausible grounds and a fair chance of being objectively correct, have their funds canceled or are refused publication*, where most politicians are too cowardly to deviate from the established “truth”, but more than keen on attacking others who do, …

*Note that I am not talking about pseudo-scientists with a professorship, legitimate scientists who cling to disproved theories, or the mere incompetent. That these eventually lose funding, and so on, is in order—if they have been given a fair chance to prove their theories and have been rejected on scientific (!) grounds. I am talking about legitimate, competent scientists who are attacked solely for expressing an opinion which is not sufficiently politically correct.

Now, what did Hope Solo say? According to e.g. USA Today:

“We played a bunch of cowards. The best team did not win today. I strongly believe that.”

This after having lost a chance at an Olympic gold in an upset loss—on penalties. The U.S had four golds and one silver in five attempts, won last year’s World Cup, and won their group without loss prior to this quarter-final; Sweden did not even have an Olympic medal, lost in the round of 16 at the World Cup, and finished third in its group after being smashed 5–1 by Brazil…

To which U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, according to the same source, claimed:

“The comments by Hope Solo after the match against Sweden during the 2016 Olympics were unacceptable and do not meet the standard of conduct we require from our national team players”

“Beyond the athletic arena, and beyond the results, the Olympics celebrate and represent the ideals of fair play and respect. We expect all of our representatives to honor those principles, with no exceptions”

Speaking as a Swede and country man of the “insulted” team: The only thing unacceptable here is the behavior of Gulati. Not only are Solo’s statements legitimate personal opinions, not only could they have been made in the heat of the moment, not only are they well within what can be expected by quite reasonable sports people having a bad day—but even if they had been unacceptable, there is no reasonable way this should have resulted in more than a slap on the wrist, say an informal warning between four eyes. Instead, she was publicly denounced—and received a six (!) month (!) suspension! Where is Gulati’s own sense of fair play and respect? (Or do only athletes need to prove these characteristics?)

To repeat: A six month suspension over a more-or-less harmless remark. There will be thousands of television viewers who said far worse…

This is the point were athletes and their managers need to start to consider refusing interviews or otherwise making public statements without the pre-approval and supervision of a lawyer—but, of course, if they do refuse, they will likely violate rules about post-event interviews, publicity appearances, and the like, and be suspended for six months…

There may well be remarks that are worthy of suspension, but, frankly, I am hard-pressed to think of anything not actually relevant for the (legal) courts that would warrant a six (!) month (!) suspension. Yes, had her team lost under similar circumstances against the Germans (who defeated Sweden in the Olympic final) instead and had she then made claims about “Nazis” or “doped-up East Germans”, then a suspension could have been quite legitimate, but even then six months seem excessive to me, considering the exceptional situation and the potential emotional turmoil. However: She said nothing of the kind. Her two sentiments were that the Swedes were cowards* and that the better team did not win**.

*They may or may not have been. I did not see the game, but it is almost becoming a problem that a considerably weaker team does nothing but defend and hope for a lucky counter when the stronger team slips or for a decision on penalties (as was the case here). This is a common scenario for e.g. FC Bayern. (We can, of course, discuss whether this is cowardice or a sensible strategy. Good sportsmanship, it is not.)

**Happens quite often, with many elements of chance being present—and even when it does not happen, the losing team and its supporters often have exactly that opinion. Certainly, the opinion that the U.S. team was better, would have been entirely uncontroversial before the game.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 25, 2016 at 11:22 pm