Monday, August 18, 2008

Marginal Thinking in the Olympics

Many of you have been watching the Olympics. I know we've seen quite a bit at our house. I saw one of the events over the weekend as offering a different perspective on the idea of marginal thinking in economics.

The event was a track event. At one point in one event, there was a false start. The commentators (referred to in my house as "regular spuds") stated that the first false start was charged to the entire field. A second false start would mean an automatic disqualification for the runner committing the false start. I asked my wife about the practice because she's really into the track and field events. She informed me this helped reduce the number of false starts because, assuming a field of eight runners, people would start being eliminated on the second instance. Presumably this would mean a maximum of eight false starts before someone would win by the rest of the runners defaulting.

I countered that, while it seemed logical and efficient, it also seemed unfair to the field. I could see false starts occurring because of tension or just trying to "jump the gun" and get a fraction of a second advantage. But I would also think the tendency to "jump the gun" might also be overstated. Given the tension and the psychological focus needed to compete at this level, I would think that repeated false starts would have a negative effect on performance, and that would be its own inhibitor. Granted keeping the possible maximum number of false starts to seven instead of a possible 15 is efficient; but I'm not sure the process is necessary.

And while it is, admittedly a minor issue, it still offers possibilities for understanding the idea of marginal analysis. What is the potential benefit vs. potential cost for "jumping the gun?"

On a final note, my boss pointed out that swimming uses a different system for controlling the false starts. One false start and you're out. Different incentives, different marginal analysis?

I look forward to your thoughts.


William Polley said...

My speculation:

In swimming, it may be that the cost to the innocent victims of a false start is greater than in track and field. They will have exerted a lot of energy getting started and then will have to swim back to the start. Hence the rather drastic penalty for false starts.

Similar logic may be at work in track and field though the cost of a false start may not be as great as in swimming.

Of course, the real reason may simply be that the sports are run by different governing bodies who don't really take into account what the other one does. (So the marginal analysis reasoning may not apply.)

Now for an extremely cynical reason for large penalties, consider this: Suppose you were an athlete who possessed incredible control and could resist the urge to commit a false start but always start right with the gun (you have superhuman timing). Further suppose that you know that other runners get flustered by false starts and waste energy. It would then be in your interest to commit a false start on purpose once if you could get away with it.

I don't really think this is a big factor, but it does make you think.

rdan said...

Hi Bill.

Have you heard from cactus?


Check 8/21/08 for the post from you blog.

Ken Houghton said...

In swimming, a false start exerts your energy; its effect on the others is more that it breaks their concentration and delays the heat.

The track example would seem to incent the behavior of deliberately "false starting" just as people settle in their blocks. (No penalty if I false "start"; penalty to everyone else if they do later.)

I would rather watch "Eric the Eel" 100 times than reward bad behavior.

(Also, it's the Eric the Eels and Eddie the Eagles and the like who make the Olympics memorable, at least in those years that don't have Blot or Comaneci or the like.)

ottnott said...

I'll speak as a former competitive swimmer, as I'm not an economist.

I believe that that strict rules in swimming arose mostly out of the desire to reduce delays in competition and secondarily to increase fairness.

The false start rules in swimming are much stricter than when I competed several decades ago.

Long-course races (as competitions in 50-meter pools are called) followed international rules. The first two false starts were charged to the field, and then disqualified any individuals for false starting after that.

Short-course (25-yard pool) competition followed U.S. rules. False starts were charged to individuals, with disqualification for a second false start.

A small percentage of swimmers were responsible for a large percentage of false starts.

Most of those false starts were not done in an attempt to get a jump on the field, in my opinion. Any substantial jump would be called back as a false start. Small jumps, disguised as quick reactions, were sometimes possible - especially when there was a starter who was very consistent in the timing between the "take your marks" command and the firing of the gun.

In my opinion, most individuals who false started did so for one or both of the following reasons:
--personal benefit derived by clearing away some tension
--disadvantaging the rest of the field by putting them through the stress of a "real" start that the false starter knows will be called back.

In a competition where there are many hundreds of swimmers each participating in multiple events, false starts can easily add several hours of time each day.

Tim Schilling said...


Thanks for your insights. It helps clarify the thinking behind the rules. Again, I can see some evidence of marginal cost/benefit analysis behind what you described.

Thanks again.