The two-athlete rule is the way sports work

So, if you’ve been following the olympics at all, you’ve no doubt been exposed to the outrage at the fact that Jordyn Wieber won’t be competing for the United States in the all-around gymnastics final. If you haven’t been following that closely, here’s the recap.

Yesterday featured the qualification round in women’s gymnastics. One point of this round is to determine which 24 athletes will compete in the all-around final. Basically, it is the 24 with the highest scores, but there is a cap of two athletes per country. The US gymnasts Gabrielle Douglas, Alexandra Raisman, and Jordyn Wieber finished second, third, and fourth. Because of the two-person cap, only Douglas and Raisman will be competing in the final. Obviously, given the rules, it was clear in advance that only two of the three could make it to the finals. What was surprising was the fact that the one left out wound up being Wieber, who was the 2011 world champion.

The (American) announcers at the venue started voicing their outrage at the two-gymnast rule, saying how ridiculous it was for the fourth-place finisher not to place in the top twenty-four, etc., etc.  This was followed by Bob Costas sitting down with Béla Károlyi to voice their outrage, with Costas scoffing at the ridiculousness of having a sport where you let anyone besides the best compete in the finals. Slate calls the rule “indefensible.”

Maybe I’m in the minority here, but it seems to me that this is pretty much how the olympics works. It also happens to be the way that most American sports work. The fact that we have divisions in baseball, basketball, football, etc. leads to exactly this sort of situation. In fact, prior to the introduction of the wildcard, this sort of thing happened all the time, where the two best baseball teams in the league would happen to be in the same division, so only one got to go to the playoffs. In fact, the outrage over this type of situation is exactly what prompted the creation of the wildcard in baseball (well, that and the desire for more playoff revenues). Now, I don’t know whether Bob Costas would be just as outraged as when, say, the best team in the NL Central is worse than the third-place team in the NL East, but I can’t say that I’ve ever heard him calling for the elimination of the division structure.

I think there are a couple of things going on here. First, the olympics represents two different, but related, competitions. Obviously, it is a competition among the best athletes in the world. At the same time, it is a competition among nations. If you want to have the best athletes in the world duke it out quotas or limits based on nationality, fine. What you have then, I believe, is something more like the world championships, which happen every year (I think), and are cared about by precisely no one outside of the gymnastics community. People care about the olympics in no small part because you have various nations sending their best, and pitting them against each other. Yes, the two-athlete cap in the gymnastics all-around final seems harsh, but I think it is inextricably tied up with the whole idea of what the olympics is.

The other thing is the tension between the desire to see the “best” athletes rewarded, and the sense that, in order to make a competition special, you require athletes to perform on a certain day. Clearly, much of the handwringing here is about the fact that Jordyn Wieber was supposed to be the best American. Presumably you can argue that, in a time-averaged sense, she is. But what are we supposed to do? We could say that Wieber is clearly really good, and deserves to be in the final. But, then, there’s really no point in having the competition. Why not just rank the athletes based on their track record and hand out the medals?

Basically, what fans (and TV executives) want is a nail-biting competition with huge stakes. Well, the way you do that is you collect some of the best competitors together, and then make them perform under pressure. You set up some rules to determine who is in and who is out, then you reset everything to zero and make the best prove it. If there is no chance for the favorite to fail, you really don’t have a sport.

The privileging of geographic diversity might be particularly salient in the olympics, but it is a critical feature of most professional sports, the world cup, and pretty much all of the sporting events that anyone cares about. You could argue that the World Series in baseball would be a more honest championship if it were simply a competition between the two teams with the best regular-season records. Maybe it would, but it would lose much of the charm and appeal of being the showdown between the American League and National League champions. Also, a huge number of games in the regular season would no longer matter.

There’s a sort of zero-sum game whenever you set up any sort of championship. The only way to increase the number of meaningful competitions is to increase the stochasticity in the system. If you’re going to have the qualification round at all in olympic gymnastics, you’ve got to have the two-person-per-country cap in place, or something like it. Yes, there are people arguing it should be three, as it was prior to 2004, but this actually more exciting and dramatic.

So, yes, this situation sucks for Jordyn Wieber, and for the fans who care a lot about the American medal count. But the bigger picture is this: the fact that it is possible for the reigning world champion to come in fourth and not make the 24-person finals is exactly what makes the olympics worth watching.

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