Free-Riding in the Olympics

As students in higher education, we all have witnessed some form of “free-riding” over the course of our education. Group projects intended to increase productivity and communication between classmates can result in an uneven distribution of the work loads. I think one reason for this stems from the differences in motivation and reward factors among individuals. Students who strive for the highest reward (in this case the highest grade) will present the highest motivation in a group setting. The individuals who are striving / content with a lower grade allow the more motivated individuals to shoulder the work. This inequality can lead to resentment, and foster actions which can be counterproductive. While many students dislike group assignments, many realize these group dynamics will arise in the workplace after graduation. Struggling with this battle is a part of life. Outside of education and business, could this type of free-riding present itself in highly competitive settings such as sports?

 In this article by the economist, swimmers are examined to understand the difference between relay race lap times and individual race lap times at the London Olympics. It is found on swimmers who swim the first leg of a relay race typically resort to free-riding and their times are about 0.3% worse than if they were swimming in a solo event. Swimmers who swim the first leg know the real pressure of the race rests with the anchor swimmer (the last swimmer in the event). Due to this, team coaches tend to put their best swimmers in not only the last position, but the first as well. Coaches expect this “0.3% loafing” and put one of their best swimmers first - hoping they can minimize the negative impacts, and increase the teams success. 

I found the existence of free-riding in the Olympics very interesting because, in such a public event, I expected athletes would be giving 100% in every race, not 99.7%. What are your thoughts on this article? Where else can we see examples of free-riding?

1 comment:

Dave Tufte said...

Ted: 94/100 ("the economist" should be capitalized, and offset some way, perhaps with italics).

Interesting. I hadn't thought of that one before (duh ... obviously ... the journal where they published this is a very good one).

This is why economists study sports: we get really sharp data on outcomes, which makes it easy to study some unusual questions.

Just for fun: It's not just sports. I've had a great idea for research on my mental shelf for ... 23 years now ... because the only data I can conceive of to test it would be roulette bets and outcomes with real money. Casinos just won't make that stuff available.

Back to sports, the result I think is coolest in sports economics is that pitchers are more likely to hit batters in the AL because they don't have to bat themselves. That's a pretty obvious application of multiple Nash equilibria in a repeated game.

BTW: business professors know you don't like group and team projects, but we are very much responding to advisory boards who note that students don't enter the working world with enough experience in solving their free-rider issues.