Fresh off the silliness of the badminton play-to-lose scandal comes this lovely piece on dolphin kicks. Last weekend, South African Cameron van der Burgh won gold in the 100m breaststroke.
However, Australia’s Olympic committee is putting up a fuss, as video footage of van der Burgh clearly shows him executing three dolphin kicks after diving into the water. (An Australian swimmer finished in second.) Breaststroke competitions allow only one.
And van der Burgh does not give a damn. From the link:
If you’re not doing it, you’re falling behind. It’s not obviously–shall we say–the moral thing to do, but I’m not willing to sacrifice my personal performance and four years of hard work for someone that is willing to do it and get away with it.
You see, FINA (the governing body of swimming) does not use cameras underwater to check for illegal dolphin kicks. Moreover, Australia cannot formally appeal van der Burgh’s finish, as there is no formal appeal process.
Of course, an appeal probably wouldn’t do much good, considering the Australian swimmer did the exact same thing.
As with the badminton scandal, the real moral of the story is about institutional design. If you build a bad institution, it will lead to more bad things. Here, you should not create rules that you do not plan to enforce. The players who wish to abide by those rules face a stark choice: play “fair” or let the “unfair” win. So even those wishing to play fair break the rules, and we end up in a situation as though the rule does not exist.
Strangely, the dolphin kick rule could be enforced. FINA used underwater technology at the swimming World Cup in 2010. Everyone knew that dolphin kicks were prohibited and breaking the rules would not go unnoticed, so no one broke them.