Our Daily Bleg: Will Olympic Cyclists Race Against Their Own Countrymen?

We’ve been quiet on the cycling front here for quite some time, although the topic has come up many times in the past.

Now a reader named Kevin O’Toole writes in with an interesting Olympics scenario, which I’ll post here in the form of a bleg. The primary question to answer is whether cycling may be the sole Olympic sport in which an athlete may have incentive to compete against his own teammates:

An interesting question is being raised on the cycling forums on the internet: What is the incentive for a mediocre cyclist, who probably won’t win the race, to “work” for his national teammate instead of his trade/ professional cycling teammate.

The national teams in the race can have 5 members per country. However, CSC — the trade team that won the yellow jersey and the team competition at the Tour de France this year — will have 14 riders in the race (representing about 7 different countries).

Teamwork is critical in the cycling road race.

Because cycling is an event where all the teams compete at once rather than one team versus another, there is some incentive to work for your trade/ professional team rather than your country. Why? If you’re from Denmark and on the CSC team, but Denmark doesn’t have any real contenders for Gold, then you’re better off helping your CSC teammate. If your CSC teammate wins, then the sponsors of your trade/ pro team are going to be happier; thus you benefit.

I think it would be at least an interesting question to ask your blog readers. I can think of no other event at the Olympics where an individual has a disincentive to work for the country he is representing.


mapgirl

CLASSIC. That's the word I was looking for to describe the great spring races like Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Paris-Roubaix, etc.

Amit

This question arises not just at the Olympics, but every year at the World Championships where riders race with their National teams instead of with thier trade teams.

This was precisely what happened in 2000 in Sydney too, where three riders (Ullrich, Vinokourov, Kloden) from the same team but representing two different nations woked together to take the top 3 spots in the road race and in an order that seemed to have been worked out.

There are rules in cycling against "collusion" across teams, but the subtle nature of the sport makes it hard to prove and it is rarely invoked.

Lisa

The fundamental difference that I see between cycling and all other sports in the Olympics is that in cycling, the team works for the individual, knowing that the team will be rewarded. It isn't just the yellow jersey-wearer who reaps the benefit. However, in the Olympics there is no incentive to work for anyone else to win, seeing as the gold doesn't split into shares for each of the country's eligible cyclists. There is the incentive to work as a member of the peloton or breakaway in order to draft or to have the tempo set for you...but ultimately it is every man for himself. They all know that-there is no asymmetry of information, where a rider is used and then dumped unknowingly. Everyone understands that there's an advantage to staying with a few other riders, no matter their national allegiance, until close to the finish.

Other sports that avoid a similar conundrum are gymnastics, which has both a team and an individual all-around medaling category to avoid the incentive not to help each other (or to sabotage each other) in training. There is also swimming, in which the teammates are of no use to each other in the Olympics, because each athlete gets their own medal but also has the opportunity to be in a relay. (The main purpose of swimmers forming into a "team" in other competitions is to accumulate points over the course of a meet--swimmers can win races but have the team ultimately lose the meet. The Olympic competition functions in a fundamentally different way, because total medals/wins have no affect on the team. There is no tangible team "win" in a competition with so many teams/talented individual swimmers involved.)

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