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Heptathlon Gold To France Not Ukraine

We analyse the differences between the two scoring systems in the Heptathlon

25Nov

…And the gold medal for the Women’s Heptathlon at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow goes to Antoinette Nana Djimou Ida of France.

No, that isn’t right. Surely, the winner was Ganna Melnichenko of Ukraine.

Yes, Melnichenko was the gold medallist under the current and conventional scoring system for the heptathlon. But that scoring system, like that for the men’s decathlon, both infringes a fundamental principle of all sporting competitions and is inequitable in relation to the multiple disciplines involved.

The fundamental principle breached is that only the relative performance of the competitors on the day (or days) is relevant to the outcome. Scoring performances in relation to world class performance in each individual discipline, rather than solely in relation to the performances of one’s fellow competitors may provide interesting insights. However, it should play no part in determining the result, any more than performance in relation to the world standard affects the result of single events.

Inequity arises when the best performer in each of the multiple disciplines is not rewarded equally and the disciplines are therefore not weighted equally. It is common that some disciplines produce a best performance with well over 1000 points, while in others the best is invariably less than 1000.

The way to correct both the breach and the inequity is simple. The leading competitor in each discipline receives 1000 points irrespective of the rating of their performance by some external tariff. The other competitors are scored proportionately, depending on their performance relative to the leader in terms of distance, height, or time achieved.

When we make the necessary corrections, Antoinette Ida rises from 8th position to take the gold medal in the 2013 World Championship, Ganna Melnichenko goes down to silver, Brianne Thiessen-Eaton down to bronze and Dafne Schippers loses her medal. Lots of other ranking changes occur throughout the 28 athlete field, some competitors rising or falling by 5 or 6 places. Of those who ‘suffer’, Katarina Johnson-Thompson falls from 5th to 10th.

Calculating the equitable scores is a simple procedure, but requires that every individual’s score be calculated only after each discipline has been completed by all competitors. Neither the competitor nor the audience will therefore know how well they have done and what points they have earned until the best performance in the discipline has been established. This feature may well be regarded as a disadvantage, but is part of the price to be paid for genuinely equal weighting of the disciplines. The best performance in each component event, whoever that competitor is, is awarded 1000 and all other performances expressed as a permillage of this.

Details for the leading 10 competitors in the 2013 World Championship appear in the Table. Note that by chance the same 10 appear in both original and equitable rankings.

Why is a scoring system that is inequitable between the disciplines and breaches a fundamental sporting principle used?

It is presumably because criteria other than the relative abilities of the competitors taking part in this particular competition are accepted as legitimate influences on the result. Three such considerations come to mind:

  • The desire to permit precisely the same scoring system to be used across all similar competitions, both spatially and temporally
  • The desire to enable each competitor (and the audience) to know their individual score for an individual element (e.g. heat) within a discipline - and cumulative score for the overall competition - as soon as they themselves have completed their element, irrespective of the later performance of other competitors in the competition
  • The desire to assist audience understanding and maintain interest/excitement by making a multi-stage event into an event where the positions of all competitors are known after each element and there can be a true ‘finish’ (e.g. in the 800 metres, where the leading competitors are put into the final heat and can work out what they need to do relative to each other without being concerned about the fastest time in this, or earlier, heats).
  • These may indeed be worthy objectives and ones possibly crucial to the economic sustainability of the discipline – though this seems unlikely in the athletics case, where the decathlon and heptathlon are part of a much larger programme. With multiple event disciplines such as the triathlon or 3 day equestrian event, this aspect may be much more significant. What one can reasonably ask those responsible for designing the rules for combined events is whether they have confronted and acknowledged the way these other aims can undermine what are surely the two key principles – giving equal weight (or intended explicit unequal weights) to each element in terms of the relative performances of the competitors in this particular competition, irrespective of the quality of the performances in relation to some external standard.

    The practical solution is to have two sets of rankings and medals.

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