A Simple Rule for Competition Design

There is a scale of commitment for any competition. At the low end, it’s not terribly relevant who wins a friendly contest—sometimes the participants barely notice who wins a game like charades or pictionary, in which scoring is mostly an afterthought. In many other casual games people do attach some importance to winning, but it’s usually kept in some perspective: you want to beat your buddies at poker, but it’s not worth anyone losing their house and life savings over.

There is a point, however, at which winning becomes a matter of life and death, and it is passed far more often than is widely acknowledged. Most serious fitness training, for example, requires a conscious choice to ignore discomfort and keep going even when your body tells you to stop. I’d argue that among elite athletes the natural desire to stop can be almost entirely tuned out: it is active analysis (and professional coaching advice) underpinning the decision about what signals to heed. In competition, athletes regularly ask more of their bodies than they’ve ever asked before, and they are prepared to dismiss at least some of the warnings their bodies feed back. The lesson every athlete must internalize is that even one’s own body can underestimate its true limits.

The flip side is that sometimes third-party analysis of your body’s limits is wrong, and the instinct to stop is correct. In most cases the failure mode isn’t terribly catastrophic. A runner who sets too fast a pace simply won’t be able to hold his speed to the finish line: conscious choices to run quickly are trumped by limited physiology. In other cases injuries can occur: while sometimes a weightlifter’s muscles may quietly fail to deliver enough force, it’s also possible that that the tissue will tear. This is accepted as a necessary risk of pushing the limits of your own strength.

The problem is that once you get above a fairly rudimentary level of commitment, competitors are going to push all the way to failure. So here’s the rule:

There’s a reason that the game of “chicken”, where two cars drive straight at each other and the first to swerve away and avoid a deadly crash loses, is not taken seriously as a sport: anyone who did take it seriously would simply never swerve away, and any contest between two such elite competitors would result in two deaths.

The World Sauna Championships, which are clearly nothing but a game of chicken involving hyperthermia instead of cars, have just killed their first elite competitor. If the failure mode of such a competition were that the loser lost consciousness and could be revived without permanent injury, then that would be one thing. In reality, however, these people are being cooked alive.

I suppose we should be grateful that the failure modes for competitive eating are just choking (which can be addressed with medical personnel on hand) or vomiting (which rather ruins any possible appeal of such contests for me).