Lance Armstrong and Game Theory

Lance Armstrong (from Wikipedia)

Lance Armstrong (from Wikipedia)

I play a lot of games, but don’t follow professional sports much. I’m just more interested in playing my own games than in watching others. I still think of sports as a category of gaming, though, which is why it always surprises me when the general public reacts in outrage to the participants treating it like that. The current controversy about Lance Armstrong’s doping is a perfect example.

Let’s put aside the questions about health risks and bad role models for the moment, and consider professional bicycling as a game. Because, as I point out from time to time on this blog, the flow of a game and effectiveness of various strategies is determined by the rules. If someone discovers a winning strategy that makes the game not “fun” to you, then you need to change the rules so that the aspects you want in the game become primary again. Sometimes, you need to consider not just “the rules”, but the entire system, in which “cheat but don’t get caught” can be a valid strategy to win millions of dollars.

It’s obvious that a lot of pro cyclists break the doping rules. And even before Armstrong, it was already obvious that a lot of them got away with it. Now that his seven Tour de France wins are thrown out, the only thing more shocking than the number of disqualified first-place finishers is the number that weren’t caught until after the fact. Does anyone have much faith that all the second- and third-place winners who eventually got their trophies were drug-free? Given all the evidence that people get away with it, it seems likely plenty of trophies have been taken away from one doper just to be given to another.

The popular perception is that doping in sports is a mistake made in a moment of weakness by someone who should know better. That may be accurate for teenagers trying testosterone, but it couldn’t be less true at the professional level. Consider Armstrong’s rigorous training regimen, his highly-trained support staff looking for any medical or scientific edge, and his own experience. Armstrong knew exactly what his performance was like both on and off drugs, and presumably had a better idea than we do about how his colleagues were using them and their chances of getting caught. Given all that, he (and a staff whose careers depended on his success) made the conscious decision that he was better off taking them.

Remember that. Lance Armstrong only doped up because even he wouldn’t have won otherwise. In a field like that, what chance does anyone else have? Oh, I’m sure there are entrants in the Tour de France who followed all the rules. You just haven’t heard of them. I wasn’t mad (or surprised) when the allegations against Armstrong came out, because I had assumed all along that the system was set up for dopers to win.

Professional cycling is long past the point where it’s become a joke, with so many disqualifications that it’s hard to take any victory seriously. The important thing to understand is that this is ingrained into the system. Cheating technology is way ahead of enforcement technology, and there’s no sign that this will change. The dwindling fanbase can either stick their heads in the sand and pretend that this isn’t the case, or they can look for changes that give them what they want.

Barring a new technology that catches all dopers, I can think of two options: Doping could be allowed. It’s not a magic shortcut, given that proper usage is as technical as the training and calculations that athletes make to maximize their results. And concerns about the health effects are hard to take seriously, when sports like boxing and (American) football are much more punishing to the body and brain than Armstrong’s tricks were. If you don’t like that, because you want role models and people who represent mankind’s drug-free potential, then that brings me to my second option: Stop looking for those heroes in competitions that make its winners rich. Amateur and hobbyist cyclists are the ones doing the things you care about, because they don’t have the same incentive to cheat. It all comes down to the structure of the game.

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