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Prisoner’s Dilemma of Racing Suits


This article provides a recap of how swimmers performed at the London Olympics this past summer. What makes these Olympics different from the Beijing Olympics four years ago? Competition suits. The difference between competition suits now and those four years ago is the material of the suit and its total coverage (i.e. jammers versus legskins or kneeskins versus full-body suits). The material of a suit is crucial in enhancing a swimmer’s performance—especially in the high-tech racing suits worn at the Beijing Olympics. It is not solely Olympic swimmers who purchase these suits, but anyone and everyone who wants to keep up with the competition (assuming equivalent talent and determination levels). Due to the nature of the suits, their maximum effectiveness is about two to three competitions. Keep in mind that these suits are not as affordable as swimmers would like. Why then do they spend $375 on a racing suit that will only be worn for two or three competitions?

In order to gain an advantage over the competition, each swimmer wears a high-tech racing suit, such as the Speedo LZR Racer Elite.  But if every swimmer wears one, then the playing field will be level—the same as if no one had worn a special suit, no one will have an advantage. Let us suppose two players A and B (equally skilled swimmers) are the only two racing the 200 yard butterfly. If player A wears a Speedo LZR Elite and player B wears a regular suit, A will win the race.  Similarly, if player B were to wear the LZR and player A were to wear a regular suit, then B will be guaranteed to win. However, if they both wear the high-tech suit, then they will tie.  On the other hand, if both of them did not wear the LZR, then they will still tie, but they will have each saved $375. This situation presents a prisoner’s dilemma where each player has a dominant strategy, and when both players play it, the resulting payoffs are smaller than if only one had played the dominated strategy. The dominant strategy for both players A and B is to wear the high-tech suit; but if they both wear the high-tech suit, then they will be worse off than if they had both chosen not to wear it. Neither A nor B necessarily want to spend $375 on a suit. However, they both think that it is worth purchasing for a chance to win. Thus, they engage in a positional arms race and invest in high-tech suits to enhance their performance.

Since positional arms races produce inefficient outcomes, the swimming government attempted to manage this problem through positional arms control agreements. Thus, on January 1, 2010, FINA (the international swimming federation) enacted a ban on certain high-tech racing suits. In addition to these restrictions, they provided strict rules on the composition and buoyancy level of racing suits. Though these rules were enacted, companies such as Speedo and TYR quickly found ways to reconstruct suits—similar to the ones banned—that could still benefit each swimmer and result in a prisoner’s dilemma. These precise guidelines for the suits’ manufacturing, however, still produce a more efficient outcome as they are not as costly.

– Storm


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