The expression ringer generally refers to the illicit practice of using a clearly superior competitor in order to gain an unfair advantage. A ringer could be a professional athlete, a retired competitor or a well-trained animal. Recruiting a ringer specifically for a competition would be viewed as unethical or illegal, however, so it is not unusual for a company or team to employ the professional in a completely different capacity. The new mail room clerk, for example, could be a former college track star or a retired baseball player. The competitor may qualify technically, but his or her skills or experience would be kept secret.
There are several theories surrounding the origin of the word, but one of the most popular involves the world of horse racing. During the early days of competitive horse racing, certain unscrupulous owners would deliberately use inferior horses in earlier races. Once a horse became established as a perennial loser, the odds against that horse winning a later race rose substantially. At this point, with the betting stakes at their highest, the owner would substitute a identical horse with much better speed. Some sources suggest this practice of changing horses was reminiscent of the old expression "ringing the changes," meaning to announce a substitution. Others suggest that the superior horse was a "dead ringer" for the slower animal, so the impostor became known as a ringer.
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Sometimes the identity and skill level of a team's ringer remains unknown and the losing team will simply accept defeat at the hands of a superior competitor. Other times, however, the ringer's true identity may be compromised and the results of the competition can be challenged. This is one reason the use of ringers to gain an unfair competitive advantage can be very risky. While it may not be strictly illegal to recruit players based on their natural athletic abilities, exploiting the rules in order to qualify a player under false pretenses is generally consider bad form.
It is not unusual for an exceptionally skilled player to hide his or her true abilities in order to gain a tactical advantage over his or her competitors. An experienced billiards player, for instance, will often miss relatively easy shots or lose several games in order to establish himself or herself as only an average player. When the stakes become higher, however, he or she will often start playing at a much higher level and completely dominate the game. A ringer may also have a very plausible cover story to explain his or her superior skills, such as previous participation in youth sports programs or high school athletics. The ringer and the ringer's employer must use caution not to reveal too much information before, during and after the competition. The revelation of an ineligible ringer can result in a complete forfeit of the competition and other sanctions.