Like everyone else in the world (seemingly) I enjoy Noah Hoffman’s blog. Apparently he gets a little bit of a hard time for how often he posts, but I think it’s pretty remarkable how much he shares about his training and racing. A lot of athlete blogs will, quite understandably, shy away from sharing some of the lower points during their season. So I was struck by Hoffman’s post following the Sochi 50k in which he was quite open about questioning whether he should remain in the sport at all.
Part of the reason I found it interesting was that for a while now I’ve felt like Hoffman hasn’t been making much progress, and based on what I read elsewhere I don’t seem to be in the majority on that front. Obviously, as a fan of US skiing, I root for him, but form my very distant vantage point looking only at race results, I haven’t seen much sign of the dramatic improvement we’d like to see.
This is all of his major international results. So you can see why I’d be puzzled by comments suggesting that his results have improved dramatically. Clearly the last two seasons have seen more good results, but his typical race hasn’t improved all that much, if at all.
Hoffman had an excellent race this past fall in what FIS now calls the pursuit at Kuusamo, and that certainly was noteworthy. But I’ve long felt that you can’t really generalize much from those pursuit races since so many skiers alter their pacing in response to the overall standings. Clearly Hoffman had a good day; I really wish he’d had that effort in an interval start race since that would be a much clearer signal of his ability.
Another example was the Sochi 50k, a race that Hoffman professed some disappointment with. He skied with the leaders nearly the whole race and had some bad luck near the end with a broken pole. On the other hand, by his own description he was basically toast with 5k to go and said that nearly everyone was leaving him behind. In the end he finished a little over a minute off the pace, or about 1.07% back. To say that a minute out in a 50k is pretty good is a bit misleading here. The fact is that modern mass start races (for the men at least) are essentially medium intensity cruisers with several kilometers of mad sprinting at the end.
I often joke that we might as well simply put the whole field on stationary bikes for a set period of time and then have them do a mass start 5k. A little bit more than a minute out in a 5k race doesn’t sound quite so good.
So you might say that I think that percent back in mass start events isn’t necessarily indicative of much. If I had better split data, a more informative metric would be a skier’s pace over the final 5% of the race, not their overall percent back.
Regardless, let’s try to take stock of where Hoffman is. I collected all top 30 men’s results in major international mass start, skiathlon and interval start races (so, yes, I’m dropping those misleading “pursuits”) over the past four seasons. For each person I calculated their median mass start percent back and their median interval start percent back. Here are the results, separated by whether they have ever achieved a top 5 result (in either type of race):
One thing this makes clear is that 1.07% back in the Sochi 50k is actually one of his better results, but it’s also clearly not been the rule. His other two strong mass start results were both held in North America.
All this isn’t meant to just rag on Hoffman. I genuinely hope he succeeds (if you don’t already count was he has done a success). But I was struck by his post-50k blog as being remarkable honest and clear eyed about his progress, which isn’t something I feel like we see very often expressed in public. I also think his coaches are right: he’s got at least two more Olympic cycles in him, and that’s a lot of time to work with. But I can’t say that we’ve seen a dramatic improvement in his race results…..yet.
So, how did the US do overall at the Olympics this year?
Well, as usual, I’m going to mostly ignore the team events. As I did before, here’s some historical context for our results this time around:
That’s all WSC and OWG results for Americans stretching back to 1992. It’s still kind of hard to swallow the women’s sprint results as a significant improvement, but there you go.
The men’s and women’s distance results both ticked slightly in the wrong direction. However, my suspicions held true and the women continued their steady improvement at the low end. The men are really just in a holding pattern. Basically nothing has changed on that front for about a decade, really.
A friend phrased the question to me in terms of a grade. Personally, if I’m being objective, I’d give the results a B+. Kikkan’s sprint race was a huge disappointment, to be sure, but four women in the top twenty is still quite good and we did put Sophie in the finals. Liz could certainly have had a better 30k, but beyond that I don’t really think anyone significantly under-performed in the distance events compared to what I expected, or thought was reasonable.
On the other hand, (and it’s very hard for me to say this publicly, because Kikkan Randall has been nothing short of revolutionary for the US skiing community), I find it hard not to consider these Games a pretty huge disappointment. But that’s my heart talking, not my head.
Multiple people emailed me asking about whether there was any potential link between whether an athlete participated in the Tour de Ski and their performance at the Sochi Olympics.
Personally, I like dealing with questions like this because they are a great example of how something can both be poor statistical reasoning, but still true at the same time. What could I mean by that?
Well, all of the emails I received made some attempt to list people on both sides: those who skipped the TdS (entirely, or in part) and then seemed to ski well at the Olympics, and those who skied the whole Tour but then seemed not to ski so well at Sochi.
The problem with this sort of thinking is that you have to stop and ask “skied well (or badly) relative to what?”. And that is devilishly hard to establish. For instance, Marit Bjoergen skipped much of the Tour, and then she won 2 gold medals.
But of course, we don’t really know how Bjoergen might have skied in Sochi had she finished the Tour. That would require time travel, or Dr. Who style alternate universes or something. Imagine an alternate universe in which she finished the Tour, and then got the exact same results, under the exact same scenarios, at Sochi. Ask yourself if you’d react to that universe with shock and surprise that Bjoergen skied well enough to win two gold medals (and two bad results from a crash and bad wax) at Sochi after doing the Tour in January. No? I thought not.
So with all my statistical hand waving out of the way up front, here’s a crude way to look at this, as best we can. I took all the top 30 finishers in the individual races at Sochi and collected all their results from 2012-2013 forward. I calculated the difference in the average performance of each skier at Sochi and prior to Sochi (measured by looking at the difference in rank or FIS points compared to each of the skiers in the cohort), and then plotted that relative to the number of stages they started at the Tour de Ski:
Due to the somewhat unfortunate repeated collapsing and then subtracting, negative values here represent doing better at Sochi against this specific cohort of skiers than they had in the previous year and half or so. So if more starts at the Tour had an overall negative effect on performance, you’d see things trending generally upward. But mostly people are just all over the map.
But the key here is that just because we have no evidence of an overall effect, for the whole population on average, that in no way means that specific people weren’t adversely affected by racing deep into the Tour. That’s the key: it’s almost certainly true that some people may have benefited from skipping the Tour, and some people suffered by doing the Tour. But that’s not the same thing as some sort of general, over-arching effect across all people.
I skipped adding any trend lines, because really, the story here is the variation. Sure, you might be able to convince yourself that there’s an effect present for the male sprinters.
On a day like today it’s probably best not to dwell on what could have been, at least for US fans.
Instead, here’s some context for how we’re doing so far, compared to our results in previous Olympics and World Championships back to the early 90’s:
It may be tough to swallow today, but look at that women’s sprint panel in the lower right. That is (by far) the single best team sprinting performance at a major championship for the US, men or women. Ever.
It is a huge testament to the accomplishments of Kikkan Randall (and Jessie Diggins, and Ida Sargent, and Sadie Bjornsen, and…) that a day like today could feel like such a big disappointment on many levels.
The other piece that catches my eye is the steady improvement in the worst female distance results (although the current Games are not over yet…). Much attention is given to our skier’s best results, but this is really what “raising the bar” really means. Slowly, steadily over time, finishing in the 70’s isn’t respectable. Then finishing in the 50’s isn’t respectable. And so on.
Ah, yes, another Olympic year, another wildly entertaining FasterSkier comment thread regarding team selection.
I find this round interesting because I sort of assumed that most of the heat this year would fall on the men’s selections, but apparently the decision to not select Caitlin Gregg is getting the bulk of the attention.
This is a singularly difficult thing to analyze, because there just isn’t much concrete data to go on. But let’s get a few things straight right up front. The selection criteria were clearly intended to not give special preference to people skiing fast just this fall. You really had to have had good points from last season as well, and some of the best opportunities for those points would have come at the spring races with the US women present (mostly).
There’s no question that reasonable people can disagree on whether this is the best strategy for a selection criteria, but I think it’s impossible to argue that its a bad idea, or even the worst idea. At best, you’re only going to see 7-8 starts from someone by early January, and when you consider someone like Gregg who you’d be taking primarily to ski a distance skate race, you really are only going to see 2-3 relevant results out of her in that time period. That’s not a lot to go on, really, and I think it’s perfectly reasonable to ask that a major part of putting yourself on an Olympic team to be demonstrating that you can ski fast over a longer time period, and against relevant fields.
So let’s acknowledge that Caitlin hasn’t raced against anyone on the US team at all this season (except for the two recent sprints in Europe). What do we know about how she has stacked up against that particular group? If we take each head-to-head matchup between Gregg and one of Randall, Diggins, Bjornsen, Brooks, Caldwell and Sargent, Gregg compiled a 6-25 record in 2011-2012 and a 3-20 record in 2012-2013. Not surprisingly, in sprint races its even worse, with a 2-11 record in 2011-2012 and an 0-20 record in 2012-2013. In graphical form, that looks roughly like this:
Negative values are bad for Gregg here. Over the past two season, Holly has basically dominated Gregg overall. Brooks hasn’t skied all that well herself this year, and I think it’s clear that Gregg is skiing faster. Have they moved enough to swap places? Impossible to say, since they haven’t skied against each other yet.
Last season, basically all of those match ups (except against Brooks) came during “Spring Series” (I’m honestly not sure if they still call it that, but I like the name) at which Gregg skied rather poorly. It’s quite possible that she was just unlucky, getting sick near those races, or maybe she just didn’t manage her fitness as well as she could have and went into the series a little run down. Who knows. Regardless, I feel like anyone looking at the selection criteria would have known that those races were going to be very, very important, both for potential points and for demonstrating an ability to ski toe-to-toe with the gals spending all year over in Europe. So that was clearly a missed opportunity.
So the record we do have from Gregg from 2011 through last spring has very little evidence that she was skiing very close to the level of the top US women in Europe. But then she shows up this fall and has clearly improved, winning or finishing on the podium of basically everything she enters. In particular, she crushed the field in both of the freestyle skate races, a 10k and a 20k mass start. Does that tell us anything meaningful?
It’s hard to say. Normally, I’d be very skeptical of reading much into a huge margin in a mass start race, since the in race dynamics can be so weird. Certainly, a good portion of that margin came from the field simply deciding they weren’t going to catch her and they started racing for second. But she won the 10k individual start in Yellowstone by a huge margin as well. My personal feeling is that while she was clearly the best skier on both days, I have a hard time putting much stock in the margin of victory. The Yellowstone race was an extremely early season event, and the other was a mass start.
And then there’s the problem that you just keep circling back to: the fact that the people she’s beating in those races themselves fare very poorly against the top US women. In those two skate races, the other top women (Patterson, Fitzgerald, Flowers, Brennan, Rorabaugh) all have pretty dismal records against the US Ski Team women themselves. Brennan skied well enough to earn herself a trip to Eurpoe, but even she went 12-40 against that group in 2012-2013 and only 2-18 so far this season.
And finally, two stellar races in the discipline you want her in isn’t much of a trend, really.
I realize as I’m writing this that I probably sound very negative about Gregg’s results this season. Actually, that’s not the case. I think it’s clear that she’s skiing considerably better than last year. I would have loved to have seen her selected and it would have been great to watch her ski in the 30k in Sochi. But the selection criteria made it pretty clear, I think, that relying on skiing fast this fall to get in was going to be long odds. A stronger signal would have been to put up some good results last spring against the other top US women head-to-head and then demonstrate you can sustain it when racing resumes the next fall.
I think it’s perfectly fair for people to react to Gregg’s non-selection with a cry of “What does it take?” The answer to that is complicated by the fact that the Olympics are such an emotionally charged event. The Games have symbolic and cultural importance for many people that really transcends the more mundane aspirations of a national skiing body (winning hardware). It’s frustrating, but I think it’s unfair to expect an organization like USSA, whose mission really ought to be to do everything it can to win, now and in the future, to treat Olympic starts any differently than World Cup or World Championship starts. Still, as a fan, that can be tough to swallow.
Gregg’s been working a long time for this, she’s well known, and folks look up to her. Sending her to Sochi to race the 30k would certainly have been a big payoff for a lot of long, hard work, even if she isn’t likely to finish very high up the results, and even if, at ~34, she’s not likely to remain an elite racer for that much longer. But it would certainly make a lot of folks back home happy and excited about ski racing.
The counter-argument is that I think the folks running the US Ski Team want us all to dream bigger. The days of simply going to the Olympics, or simply getting the chance to race in Europe as a fitting reward to a long career are over. Qualifying for Olympic/World Champ teams, attaining first period WC start rights, are all just steps along the way. Worth celebrating, for sure, but no longer a career capping moment. I think on some level, they actually don’t want us to be aspiring to long, successful domestic racing careers capped off with a trip to a major event with middling results.
And I think that mostly people are ok with that message, and that we really are dreaming bigger. But when it comes to the Olympic Games, the cold hard reality of that message can really sting, since for so many the Olympics are just a different beast altogether.
I don’t really have an ending for all this, except to say that I’m excited that Caitlin Gregg is skiing so well this year, and that as an American I’m thrilled to see what results she can put up across the pond, Olympics or no.
One of the hot topics this week in the US is who will be named to the Olympic team. There is particularly heavy speculation surrounding the men’s distance skiers, since that’s the most wide open (and the weakest). There are a lot of factors that go into a decision like this that I’m just going to ignore: having enough racers in case someone gets sick, starting young skiers versus older skiers, etc. Those are all judgement calls.
I’m going to throw a lot of stuff into this post, but my main message here is that there really is no such thing as an “objective criteria”. I’m going to limit myself here to Kris Freeman, Brian Gregg, Matt Liebsch, Sylvan Ellefson, Erik Bjornsen and Miles Havlick. It’s possible that Bjornsen will get in based on his sprint points anyway, but I’m going to include him regardless.
The range in distance FIS points for these six is only 5.31 based on the current list. If you actually included a confidence interval on each person’s FIS points (which are an average, remember) they would encompass a range of 4-7 FIS points for each of them. So statistically speaking, that “objective” measure is essentially indistinguishable.
And of course, it is extremely sensitive to what you might call “researcher degrees of freedom“. FIS points are designed to measure one very specific thing (if you even believe they do a good job of that): how fast could someone ski, if everything goes perfectly? Even if you assume that FIS points “work” they will never measure how fast someone will typically ski. That’s baked into the cake with the decision to average each person’s five best results.
For example, if instead of averaging the best 5 results you took the median of all results over the previous year, they would be in the order Ellefson, Gregg, Liebsch, Havlick, Freeman, Bjornsen. If you take the median of the results just this season, the order would be Ellefson, Gregg, Liebsch, Bjornsen, Freeman, Havlick.
Personally, I’m more partial to using head-to-head data to compare skiers. Then you don’t need to decide whether you “believe” FIS points or not, since we’re just using (essentially) differences in percent back when they actually ski against each other.
So if you take all head-to-head matchups among those six over the past year, weight them by date, and take the median of those results, the order would be Freeman, Bjornsen, Ellefson, Havlick, Gregg and Liebsch. This last measure highlights the degree to which Gregg and Liebsch are getting good points at races that the other folks didn’t happen to be at.
Lastly, are we shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic here? Are any of these guys likely to finish in the top 30 or top 20 in Sochi? (I am not an unfeeling robot; I acknowledge that there are more sentimental reasons to name people, as a reward to excellent domestic performances, regardless of how likely they are to have success internationally.)
The following graph shows the major international distance results for this group of guys over the past several seasons. Since Freeman is responsible for so many of them, I’ve separated him out.
Nothing to write home about for anyone here, so regardless of who is named, my expectations for results are pretty low.
Just for fun, I’ll go ahead and say what I’d do in a fantasy land where I’m not bound by official selection criteria. In addition to the pre-qualified men I would name Kris Freeman, Torin Koos, Erik Bjornsen and Sylvan Ellefson. Why? Well, Freeman hasn’t been skiing well lately, but he’s the only one of the group I think actually could pop a top 10 or top 5 result if the stars aligned. Koos because you just need another sprinter, and he’s the obvious choice. Bjornsen both based on recent performance and the “youth” argument, and Ellefson because he seems to be skiing particularly well this season.