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In the Olympics, Success Breeds Success

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We found that persistence is far greater in sports with more subjective outcomes.

The sore losers grumbling about biased judging in Olympic figure skating, diving and gymnastics events may have a point, according to new research by NYU Stern Professor Robert Salomon that analyzed data from every Olympiad between 1896 and 2008.

In “Quality, Subjectivity and Sustained Superior Performance at the Olympic Games,” Professor Salomon, an associate professor of international management, and David Waguespack, of the University of Maryland, studied patterns in data covering 208 countries and 42 sports over 45 Olympiads in order to explore why some individuals or countries dominated certain sports year after year.

The authors focused on the level of subjectivity involved in judging different sports, placing events along a spectrum. For instance, in track and field, the results are clear-cut, with officials’ subjectivity playing no role. In refereed sports like basketball, where the final score tells most of the story, an element of subjectivity is injected because officials influence the course of the game through foul calls. Most subjective, figure skating outcomes are almost exclusively the officials’ call.

Professors Salomon and Waguespack demonstrate that countries or individuals who persistently dominate certain sports benefit from the level of subjectivity inherent in determining the outcome – in short, a country’s reputation influenced how it was judged. Although certain countries routinely took home the gold even in “objectively” determined events, Professor Salomon acknowledges, “We found that persistence is far greater in sports with more subjective outcomes.”

Salomon and Waguespack further examined these effects in the context of Olympic boxing. Because Olympic boxing has both objective and subjective outcomes, it provided the authors with a neat context for additional analysis. The authors showed that “reputationally privileged” boxers were more likely to win on points, which is a subjective measure of performance, than they were likely to win by knockouts.

These results could certainly be used to educate Olympic judges about the dangers of over-reliance on a competitor’s reputation. Further, as the authors suggest, it would be interesting to see if the pattern extends to competitive business environments. For example, in industries where taste matters more and subjectivity is a greater part of the equation (e.g., music, art), reputation can have an outsized impact on corporate performance. But in settings like the semiconductor industry, where the barometers include more objective indicators of quality (e.g., defect rates, cycle times), reputations are likely to matter much less to profitability outcomes.

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Robert Salomon is an Associate Professor of Management and Organizations.