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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

Follow-Up II: Olympic trials or tragedies?

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And yet again, there have been plenty of interesting events:

  1. Aregawi was indeed not nominated for the Olympics. The reasoning for this is vague, but seems to be largely based in doubts as to her form or some other factor*. This is a good example of how sports organizations get in the way of sports—and is doubly unjust, seeing that the reason why she might be out of form and has been unable to prove herself is the flawed doping suspension… The decision to compete should be hers and hers alone**. Should it transpire that she goes to Rio and makes a fool out of herself, well, that is a risk that she should take or not take according to her own wishes.

    *E.g. that she might still somehow be a cheater. While this is definitely a possibility, it should be up to those with suspicions to prove her guilt—not up to her to prove her innocence.

    **Given that she already has surpassed the international qualifying standards. I am not inviting the average couch potato to join the competition.

    A twist is that in order to compete, any Swedish athlete has to satisfy at least three different organizations: The International Olympic Committee, the National Olympic Committee, and the respective national organization for the individual sport (in this case Track and Field). This not counting other organizations that might have a say on another dimension, e.g. WADA.

  2. Molitor has been promptly turned-down in court. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, I honestly do not know. What I do know is that the problem is an artificial one, created by an unjust rule of three athletes per country.
  3. Hurdler Kendra Harrison (who almost featured in my original post) went to the U.S. trials with a world leading time that was one of the best in history, missed the top three, and will not be going to the Olympics.

    Today, she broke the world record of almost thirty years… No matter who wins in Rio, there can be little doubt that she at best the number two in the world. (Barring the possibility that the winner answers with a similarly good time, which is highly unlikely.)

    Since hurdlers often have a short peak, I would be extremely surprised if her chances at winning the next time around, in four years, are even close to what they would have been this year.

  4. The IAAF are again screwing around with competition formats, to the detriment of both athletes and fans: Apparently competitors in the field events of the current Track-and-Field Junior World-championships are allowed a maximum of four attempts, instead of the six which has been the standard since the days of yore. Looking at past competitions, this is a very major change, seeing how common last round changes are, and it replaces an element of skill with an element of chance. This is particularly disturbing, since the IAAF seems to have strong urge to just shorten competitions, without considering how the results might be affected.
  5. In other news relating to doping and the power of organizations: Norwegian cross-country ski star Martin Johnsrud Sundby appears to have been suspended on a doping violation, retroactively losing several titles—because the national-team physician had screwed up with a medication that he was allowed to use.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 22, 2016 at 11:20 pm