Playing to Lose (or, What Mucking Around with Sports Rulebooks Has to Do with Math)

Math with Bad Drawings

At the 2012 Olympics, eight badminton players were disqualified for trying to lose on purpose.

Their incentive was simple. In the next match, the loser would face an easier opponent than the winner. It’s as if the teams were told, “Okay! The winner will have to climb Mount Everest, while the loser will have to watch the IMAX film Everest. Now, everybody, play your best!”

Instead, the Olympic athletes impersonated bumbling beginners—serving into the net, missing easy returns, and failing again and again to sustain a rally. The crowd booed, the referees fumed, and commentators grieved for the poor paying customers, who had inadvertently bought tickets to a farce.

In a recent post, the inimitable Jeff Kaufman asks an interesting question: What if all athletes everywhere suddenly caught losing fever, and began pursuing their own defeat? Would the resulting games all be as boring and self-defeating as badminton…

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