Home > Uncategorized > Random isn’t always fair: the curious case of the London Olympics

Random isn’t always fair: the curious case of the London Olympics

Rich Harris

So, an estimated 55 percent of the people who applied for tickets for the London Olympics will not receive any and a spokesperson for Downing Street has had to describe the allocations as “fair”. With respect, I disagree.

Admittedly, the process sounds fair. Everyone can apply for tickets and in the event that demand exceeds supply they will be allocated randomly. Without bias. Without prejudice.

So far, so good. But, there’s a flaw: there was no quota on the number of tickets people could apply for.

Why does this matter? Well, the problem is one of gaming and trying to maximise your chances of winning something even if it isn’t your ideal first choice. Specifically, everyone knew that demand would exceed supply so people applied for more tickets that they would have wanted if they knew they could get exactly what they wanted. Great for profits and ticket sales. Less great for those wanting tickets. Because what happens is that those who can afford to ‘gamble more’ (to buy more tickets than they really want) have a better chance of winning something. In other words, the probability of receiving a ticket becomes directly linked to ability to manage the financial risk: i.e. to wealth. Hence the injustice of one person having £11,000 worth of tickets having ‘bet’ £25,000 to get them.

There’s an economic lesson here, too. Even in a system where allocations are random, because it is also laissez faire and without any sort of regulation (quotas) the result favours some people in society more than others.

Ultimately, the Olympics ballot was based on a view of “fairness” that is very individualistic. A better definition, and a better ballot, would be more socially minded.

Richard Harris is a member of CMPO and also the author of the blogsite www.social-statistics.org

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