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The USA-CAN Men’s Relay Rivalry Has A Very Long History

Warning: this post contains no statistics and virtually no data, but I suspect it may be fairly entertaining!

During most of my lifetime, the US & Canadian men’s 4x10km relay teams have not often been in medal contention, although the Canadians definitely had some strong teams for a period with Devon Kershaw, Alex Harvey, Ivan Babikov and others that were occasional outside contenders for a medal. (For instance, I believe the Canadians were 3rd in one WC sprint and 5th in another in the last 10 years or so.) But frequently both North American men’s relay teams have been out of medal contention fairly early. Naturally, you would expect a friendly competitive spirit to develop between the two neighboring nations as a sort of “race within the race”.

I’ve been doing some long overdue organizational work with the several boxes of paper race results records that I’ve received (primarily from Ruff Patterson & John Estle). In the process I (re)-discovered an entertaining little nugget: a telex (!) sent to the US from Europe summarizing the men’s & women’s relays at the 1985 World University Games in Nevegal, Italy. I haven’t done the research to determine for sure who sent the telex and who specifically the recipient was (presumably either Ruff Patterson, or US Ski Team staff generally) but it tells quite an entertaining story.

Here’s the scene. The US men’s relay team consisted of Joe Galanes, Terry Daley, Josh Thompson (future biathlete) and Todd Boonstra, in that order. The Canadians ran Allain Masson, Wayne Dustin, Owen Spence and Benoit Letourneau. Before we even get to the North American “race within a race” on the men’s side, there was some notable drama in the women’s race. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the start of the telex:

Team nordic Sovi-jet (sic) women nailed for skating in tag zone, cost ’em gold. No impact on US. For (sic) good legs from men and we’d have bronze except the Canucks blew in and took it with USA fourth.

Hotline: ‘They upheld a protest against skating in the tag zone of a cross-country ski relay today…and it cost the Soviet Union a gold.

Three-by-five-kilometer relay at the World University Games in Nevegal, Italy…But the five-member jury disqualified the Soviets for skating in the exchange zone between laps. The decision was the first time skating protests have been upheld in a major international race…coming on the heels of disallowed protests last month at the Nordic World Championships in Austria and last week at the World Junior Championships in Switzerland, by knocking out the Soviet women, the jury handed the relay gold medal to Czecoslovakia (sic)…with Poland the silver medalist and Finland third.

Exciting! The telex continues in depth on how the men’s relay played out:

In the men’s relay…the Soviets tooch (sic) charge on the final lap and earned the gold with Italy second and Canada holding off the lead from–of all teams Japan early on the second lap while the Soviets were struggling. However, Vladimir Nikitin took over at the start of the final 10-kilometer lap and pulled the Soviets in firts (sic), Todd Boonstra kept the US close on the last lap but it wans’t (sic) enough as the US had to settle for fourth in the 11-team field.

This section of the telex (the “Hotline”) reads like a press-release of sorts. What follows appears to be more of a direct communication between ski team staff describing the race in more detail:

Bat fecal matter (sic), got the okay for Joe to race and he was accredited without problem…but who wud (sic) have figured the Canadians wud (sic) replace Austrians and Finns? We had figured Soviets and ITA as 1-2 and that gave us a shot at the bronze we got four excellent legs…but the Canadians upset everything. Galanes was six secs out of first at about 3.5km, sitting in sisth (sic) place at back of second three-man knot when his pole got caught in netting along track on a lefthand curve. He lost about 20 secs but regained it and was in fourth before running out of gas at end of lap. Still we were close to third, which was what we wanted, Josh and Terry gave us strong middle laps we needed, but the Canadians wudn’t (sic) drop. They went with speed to hang-on at the end and pulled it off. Masson had ’em third behind JPN and SOV, just 25 secs out of first…Dustin took lead and they held it till end of third leg when Soviets regained it, and Nikitin cruised. Boonie cudn’t (sic) catch junior Benoit Letourneau altho (sic) he cut 11 secs off the gap…women never in it with Butts skiing scramble and seventh (last) right from the start. When the Sovi-jets (sic) were dumped, that moved US to sixth.

No, I do not understand the “bat fecal matter” reference either. It continues…

Taylor: ‘We wanted four good legs and we got ’em but there was no way we could anticipate the Canadians being so tough. Dustin is skiing very hot right now and is the classic picture of someone getting better as his confidence grows. Getting Joe last night was a shot-in-the-arm and obviously was the key to us being any kind of a contender, who knows what wud hv (sic) happened if he hadn’t gotten hung-up in the nets but he gutted it out and made good comeback. Terry and Josh really showed something and I’m going to talk with Terry about his thoughts on skiing for us, he’s raw talent and wud (sic) be a terrific addition if he decided he’d put his career on hold. Boonie skied a honey of a race, too, but he’s not the Todd Boonstra we’ve seen in the past, still, absolutely no complaints–except someone forgot to tell the Canadians what we planning (sic)’

The US would have won the bronze if it hadn’t been for those meddling Canadians! After all that, one of the things that actually fascinates me the most is that after mentioning the surprise position of the Japanese team early in the race, the telex fails to mention that they were disqualified! Here’s images of the actual race results:

I can’t find an Article 382.5 in the current FIS rules, so I’m not sure what the Japanese team was disqualified for. But I guess that was overshadowed by the drama with the Soviet women skating and the battle royale between the US & Canadian men.

Even Bigger Winner Margins!

Therese Johaug already made me write one post on this topic this championships and now she’s forced me to write another. So I promise I’ll keep this short, unlike the gaps from Johaug to the next skier.

Therese Johaug once again won a race by a very large margin, this time in the 30km classic mass start in the 2021 Oberstdorf WSCs. Personally, I don’t think that I’m as impressed by huge mass start winning margins as other people seem to be. Obviously, unlike interval start races the visual impact of large gaps in mass starts can make quite an impression. But for me, at least, the relationship between my amazement and the size of the gap is not strictly linear. It’s probably something more like this:

When a skier pulls away in a mass start race, I do become steadily more amazed as the gap grows, up until it reaches a certain point and then my amazement sort of plateaus, and even declines a bit after a while. (Obviously, the specific units on the x-axis of this Very Serious and Rigorous graph would change for races of different lengths.)

Which is all just to say that I found Johaug skiing away from the field extremely amazing, up until the gap started getting up into the 90 second territory. After that, I’m not sure any further increases in the margin mean all that much. But that’s just me! You can obviously take joy and amazement from whatever you like.

A consequence of this is that I don’t think you can meaningfully compare winning margins from mass starts except at the level of breaking it down to basically three categories:

  • It was a sprint finish
  • They were in contact but not enough for a sprint
  • There was a very big gap, it wasn’t close at all

For me, mass start winning margins fall into one of those three categories, and I personally don’t get much out of any further parsing of the time gap. But what would I even be here for if I didn’t give you a list? So here’s a list of the biggest (by percent back) winning margins in major international events in the last 30 years or so.

Largest %-Back Time Gaps

Generated by wpDataTables

So perusing this table you can see why Johaug’s 10km freestyle interval start gap is still the most impressive thing I’ve seen recently.

Big Championship Winning Margins

Therese Johaug’s margin of victory today was pretty epic. Epic enough that FasterSkier included a list the winning margins in 10k championship events for the last 20 years or so. I thought it might be interesting to expand on that slightly. The following table lists winning margins for all 10/15km (men’s & women’s) interval start championship events (WSC & OWG) that I have times for. This expansion muddles things a bit since if you go back far enough you start getting the women doing 15km or the men doing 10km, so you do need to keep that in mind. But I still think it’s interesting to include them all. The table lists the winning margin and the percent difference.

Johaug’s winning margin isn’t the absolute largest on this list, only because of the aforementioned women’s 15km championship events, but if you sort by percent difference, hers is the largest by a fair bit.

10/15km Winning Margins

Generated by wpDataTables

Assessing the USA/CAN Performance in the Oberstdorf WSC Classic Sprint

American ski fans have gotten spoiled this season with some outstanding results. Even allowing for the fact that we probably all know that classic sprints aren’t really one of the stronger events for the US, today’s results might have seemed a bit underwhelming.

This sort of situation is what I consider the ideal use of data in skiing. Not some big fancy analysis, just a simple gut check with a quick graph. The metaphor I like to use is that race result data’s best role in the sport (at the moment) is as a sort of “guardrail for the brain”. Our minds are amazingly talented at taking small bits of information and spinning pretty elaborate stories to explain them. Some simple looks at the data may not provide us with some groundbreaking insight, but it can often prevent us from driving wildly off the road.

So here’s the history of major international classic sprint performances for the US and Canadian skiers:

In line with my previous discussion, I’m not claiming this gives us any big insight. But! I can glance at these graphs and quickly calibrate how I feel about how the US & Canada did today, in a broad sense:

  • The US women had a notably off day, maybe not terrible but not great
  • The US men did ok, maybe about as well as we might expect
  • The Canadian men had a pretty good day (coming from a pretty low baseline)
  • The Canadian women had a maybe ok or only slightly disappointing day, again from a pretty low baseline

My one caveat is that this is obviously at a “program level” assessment of the day, rather than at the level of the individual athletes, where their particular histories would potentially lead you to different conclusions about whether their individual results were good or bad today.

WC Race Speeds Over Time

Someone emailed me with this question, which is a common one that I’m sure I’ve written about multiple times before. But it’s an easy graph to make, and just posting it again is easier than finding one of my old posts.

The question is how have race speeds changed over time. As you might expect we’re going to limit ourselves to a single race format and distance for consistency, in this case 15/10km interval start events for the men & women respectively:

One women’s race from the 1990’s that is a significant outlier has been removed; I’m quite sure it’s been mis-recorded on the FIS website somehow. The trends are just linear fits to the data. If you really want to squint at the scatterplots you could try to fit a smooth curve and try to spot places where it “jumped” but skiing races are just too variable to cleanly identify that level of change, and the linear trends obviously describe the data quite well.

Just eyeballing the graph, all four events (men & women, freestyle & classic) have improved by around 15%; some a little more, some a little less. It’s easy to brainstorm all the various causes for this improvement:

  • skiers train better, eat better, have better technique
  • better waxes
  • better skis
  • better, more reliable grooming (this is my favorite explanation and the most commonly overlooked in my opinion)
  • faster courses? (This is kind of an oddball one, but I wonder about it sometimes. Old time ski courses were narrower, with fewer longer loops and more twisty (maybe?), particularly before we had to accommodate skating and mass starts. Those kinds of courses with constant transitions and turning were possibly slower to ski than today’s trails that look like super-highways.)

Every time I make this graph, or something equivalent I have the same somewhat entertaining thought: what sort of courses would we need to have on the WC circuit to force current athletes back to the average speeds of the 1990’s? The 1980’s? It’s kind of amusing to think about what the courses would have to look like to add 10, 20 or even 30 seconds per kilometer to today’s top skiers.

Top US Results Have A Freestyle Bias

I don’t think it’s any secret that US skiers tend to have somewhat better results on the World Cup (and OWG/WSC/TdS) in freestyle events. Let’s quantify that a bit, starting with distance races:

I’ve plotted major international results of both techniques (so no skiathlons) for the US men & women for the last decade or so. I’m just using finishing place as the measure, to keep things simple and easily interpretable. The lines represent the 50th & 10th percentiles for each technique. I had to use two sets of lines with the same colors (blue = freestyle, red = classic) so I labelled the sets as 50th and 10th percentile.

There’s a distinct separation between techniques for the US women that has persisted for quite a while. For the US men, I’d say that the 50th percentile result is about the same for each technique, with a very small edge for freestyle in the 10th percentile, not terribly significant.

Here is the same plot for sprints:

Some interesting differences here. The women still have a consistent bias towards freestyle, but it’s considerably smaller, and the difference for the 10th percentile has narrowed in recent years. The men seemed to have very little difference between techniques until recently when a fairly substantial gap has developed, again favoring freestyle. Part of me wonders how much of that is the result of just one skier, Andrew Newell, declining slightly later in his career and then mostly retiring.

Jessie Diggins’ Best Classic Races

I noticed an interesting Tweet from Chad Salmela regarding Jessie Diggins’ race in today’s Falun 10k classic mass start:

Ultimately, of course, Jessie Diggins is the only person who truly knows what her best classic performance is. But for data people like me it’s always a fun game to try to tease out some objective measure from the peanut gallery. When I read Chad’s tweet my gut reaction was disagreement.

Comparing race performances, even limiting ourselves to just classic distance races, is hard. There are lots of different confounding variables but the big obvious one is race format. Mass start events are just very different in modern skiing than individual start races, and of course pursuit starts are probably worth excluding all together.

Let’s look at Diggins’ major international classic results using three measures:

  1. finishing place (rank),
  2. FIS points, and
  3. PBM points (a point system analogous to FIS points based on the median skier and the spread of skiers in an attempt to capture the strength of the whole field rather than just the top finishers)
Generated by wpDataTables

First, let’s sort the table by finishing place (rank). Even if we exclude the pursuit start race in Canmore, the 7th in today’s (2021-01-30) Falun 10k mass start is bettered by several events including an interval start race also in Falun in 2016. There are also numerous other 7th & 8th place results that should be in the conversation by this measure.

But that’s just one measure, and Chad specifically referenced percent-back, which is what FIS points are based on, so if we instead sort the table on FIS points we see basically what Chad describes as the top three (again we’re ignoring that Canmore pursuit start).

But do you notice something interesting here? When we focus only on the percent-back from the leaders some strong interval start races suddenly look much, much worse. Sort of disturbingly worse.

Here we start to butt up against the reality that mass start and interval start events may be so different, tactically and physiologically, that we should start to at least consider the possibility that they aren’t even really comparable at all. Not as incomparable as distance and sprint events, maybe, but different enough that what happens at the front of the field may not adequately capture a skier’s efforts between those formats.

As all cross-country ski racers know, today’s mass start races often have relatively slow paces for much of the race, ending with a frantic sprint over the final few kilometers, or perhaps even only the final few hundred meters. Interval start races tend to involve a more consistently high pace (and effort) for the entire race. Old farts like me tend to be biased towards interval start events (it is “real” racing, after all!) but if I’m being honest, it’s just different and requires somewhat different skills.

Circling back to Diggins’ classic results, it’s these sorts of things that make me wary of percent-back based measures when we’re mixing interval and mass start events. It should give us pause that Diggins can finish 5th & 7th in interval start races and yet have as much as ~3x the FIS points (roughly 3x the percent-back) as a 7th place mass start finish. Should we really be discounting those interval start results that severely? Diggins was much closer, in time, to the handful of skiers up the track in the mass start race, but was that because she skied faster, or was it because those skiers in front of her were only really “racing” at a different pace for a short time and so didn’t have the road to put more time on her?

In general, I think percent-back based measures like FIS points tend to pretty severely underplay interval start results. Many of the choices I made in designing a percent-back from the median skier revolved around these sorts of concerns. I’ve found that the middle of WC fields tend to be a bit more stable a benchmark for measuring performance. You avoid situations where a single skier like a Bjoergen or Johaug just outpaces the field by a minute. Additionally, I included an adjustment for how “spread out” overall the results for that day are, to penalize slightly situations where the pace is slower, resulting in a very bunched field.

So if we finally sort the table by PBM points we get very different results indeed! This measure appears to give much more credence to Diggins’ various interval start results, rather than just putting all the mass start races at the top. But there are some very different, and possibly surprising, races at the top using this measure.

First, it really likes the 2018 TdS 10k classic mass start in Val di Fiemme, for instance. This does make some sense. It was a mass start race that fractured pretty badly (albeit with a small, late-Tour field), so Diggins ended up way ahead of the mid-pack skiers, but she finished 4th, within a respectable distance from the leaders. This measure also really likes her 5th place finish in the 2016 Falun 5k interval start. This also makes sense: Johaug outpaced the field by ~19sec that day in only 5k and that’s the sort of thing that can really distort percent-back from the winner measures.

But I’m burying the lede here because where on this list is today’s 7th in Falun? Holy cow it’s all the way down in 18th! Why so low? Well, in today’s race Diggins wasn’t unusually distant from the middle of the pack (~1min in a 10k) but the field as a whole was very “bunched” suggesting that the overall pace wasn’t doing much to separate the field and so we should put somewhat less stock in being close to the leaders at the finish.

Ultimately, my gut tells me that my PBM points are being perhaps a bit too harsh on today’s race, and the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Today’s classic performance almost certainly wasn’t Diggins’ best ever, but I’d say top-10 is fairer than ranking it all the way back in 18th.

My thought process when reading results actually does synthesize all three of the measures we just discussed, so in practice I don’t think any one is preferable to the exclusion of the others. My internal monologue today went something like this:

Wow, Jessie finished 7th in a classic race! And very close to the winner! That’s very good for her! But, hmm, it was a mass start, and gee, the top of the field looks like it was very bunched together suggesting either a relatively slow pace, or very fast conditions, or both. Let’s see, how far from the middle of the field was she? Hmm…pretty average actually. Ok, so that was a very solid classic race for her. Not Earth shattering, but very good.