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How deeply the game theory is rooted in our competitive sports, today.

In a world where media is capable of delivering news to almost everyone in the world, a story of a testicular cancer patient surviving to win seven consecutive Tour de France surely sells out. As profitable as it sounds, his story is very touching too. In fact, many cancer patients do not hesitate to look upon Armstrong as a role model. He’s the guy who fought against the cancer that once had metastasized to, even the brain. However, like many epic pieces in literature, his story too, reaches a climax and then falls.

In a cycling race, surely the fittest cyclist survives. It seems just as simple as that. However, what many people easily forget is that there are many factors that decide the race, and that doping (as Armstrong’s scandal proves), is one of the many key factors here. When it comes to professional competitive sports, doping becomes an economic decision making issue rather than a moral one. It endorses people to calculate the risks and the payoffs, in which the participants become game players. Evan Selinger’s article does a great job of analyzing competitive professional cycling in the viewpoint of game theory.

“…the game theoretic problem of the prisoner’s dilemma shows how the relevant variables can be broken up into clear payoffs for the strategies of abiding by the rules and cheating. A significant divide separates the two — one big enough to make the honest competitor looks like a sucker who fails to grasp the incentives and expected values associated with the basic options. While the cyclist who wants to be a clean competitor can win the moral contest of clinging to high principles, he or she won’t win the Tour de France. “(Selinger, 2012)

By actually calculating the payoffs and the risks, the athletes ends up in a Nash Equlibrium, where no player has anything to gain by unilaterally changing strategies. In other words, it is better off for them to simply just dope. Michael Shermer’s article on why athlete’s dope provides the logical reasoning behind doping, analyzed by using game theory.

“…Game theory highlights why it is rational for professional cyclists to dope: the drugs are extremely effective as well as difficult or impossible to detect; the payoffs for success are high; and as more riders use them, a “clean” rider may become so noncompetitive that he or she risks being cut from the team…” (Shermer, 2008)

The issue of doping is not just contained to cycling alone. It seems same for all competitive sports. The society might reach one day when all the moral athletes are selected out of the professional athlete population due this enormous selection pressure called “competition.” However, the solution here should not be that “everyone’s a winner,” but rather to provide a structural environment where the Nash Equilibrium for the athletes can be “not to dope.”


Works Cited:

Selinger, E. (2012, August 28). ‘But Everybody’s Doing It!’ Lance Armstrong and the Philosophy of Making Bad Decisions. Retrieved September 10, 2012, from the Atlantic:

Shermer, M. (2008, April). The Doping Dillemma. Scientific American, 298, 82-89.

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Lance Armstrong. Retrieved September 10, 2012, from Wikipedia:



One Response to “ How deeply the game theory is rooted in our competitive sports, today. ”

  • Bikehound

    The really clever thing here was how far LA was able to push the envelope. He surely took his hyper competitive streak and applied it to his relationships off the bike – getting an exclusive deal with Dr Ferrari meant that his competitors had to go 2nd rate doping doctors, plying the officials of the sport’s governing bodies with cash donations kept him in their good book and their favours in his pocket.

    You may not like his motives but you have to be impressed with the ingenuity of how he played the game.

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