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Does the problem of free riding exist in swimming?

Modified 29 Mar 2015
Swimming relay

The concept of free ride

There are many different scenarios where in individual members of groups may benefit from the efforts of each of their fellow members. Hence from collective action they can all benefit by a substantial amount. For instance , as residents in an area that has a scarcity of water, if each one of us decides to waste less water by closing the tap while brushing our teeth or by substituting showers with bucket baths, we will all benefit from the fact that we have saved water, water that can be used for other purposes. If, one does not contribute his or her share on saving water, He or she may be termed as a free rider, someone who benefits on the actions of others.

In Economics a free rider can thus be defined as a person who “consumes more than his or her fair share of a common resource or pays less than his or her share of the cost of a common resource.” While the problem of free riding does exist in economics and politics it can also be traced in sports.

In the 2012 London Olympics, ace American swimmer, Nathan Adrian clinched the gold medal in the 100 meter freestyle race. He clocked a personal best of 47.52 seconds narrowly beating Australian James Magnussen by 0.01 seconds. Just 3 days earlier, Adrian swam the first leg of  the 4*100 meter freestyle relay in 47.89 seconds, 0.37 seconds slower than his personal best, and the slowest among all four swimmers of the USA team. USA came second in that race, losing out to France by almost half a second. Did Nathan Adrian not give his 100 %?

Fastest swimmer first

It has been observed that coaches tend to select the fastest swimmers to swim the first and the last legs of the relays respectively, and the relatively slower swimmers to swim the second and third legs. After analyzing the data of 7000 major swimming meets, Michael Neugart, of the Technical University of Darmstadt, and Matteo Richiardi, of the University of Torino, found out that swimmers who swam the opening leg of the relay performed worse relative to their individual performance in the same competition. 

These findings  can be linked to economic concept of “free riding”, the ability to extract a gain from the team’s performance , (in this case a medal from the efforts of the other 3 swimmers), without suffering a loss ( exertion of muscles, body pain etc). 

Since a swimming relay is a task that follows a certain sequence, only the last swimmer has the incentive to thoroughly exert himself.  Jason Lezak’s amazing performance in the finals of the 4*100 meter freestyle relay of The 2008 Olympics bears the testimony to this fact. His extraordinary finish in the last leg of the relay, allowed the Americans to defeat the French and take the gold medal. 

From a psychological point of view, it can be understood that if the first swimmer knows that if he goes faster, the last swimmer need not have to work as hard to win. Anticipating this, the first swimmer is tempted to slow down. This is exactly what Nathan Adrian did. However, unfortunately for him and the rest of the team, despite the anchor Ryan Lochte’s best efforts, USA was unable to win the race. This does provide some evidence that the concept of “free riding” may exist in swimming

Published 29 Mar 2015, 11:19 IST
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