Is Kikkan the Gold Medal Favorite?

One topic that’s going to come up over and over again over the next 10 months or so is to what degree Kikkan Randall may be the gold medal “favorite” for the freestyle sprint in Sochi.

If you look over the past several seasons, the first thing you have to note is that two of the more dominant freestyle sprinters are now retired: Arianna Follis and Petra Majdic. Vesna Fabjan is a decent sprinter, but she’s never beaten Kikkan in the twelve times they’ve met in freestyle sprints over the past two seasons. Similarly, Hanna Falk is 0-7, Celine Brun-Lie is 0-6 and Natalia Matveeva is 0-9. Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg? She’s 1-9.

The most obvious threats, in terms of how they’ve performed against Kikkan directly, would appear to be Ida Ingemarsdotter, Maiken Caspersen Falla and of course Marit Bjoergen. Ingemarsdotter and Falla are both 3-6 against Kikkan over the past two seasons, while Bjoergen is 1-3. And in Bjoergen’s case, we need to be careful to consider that they only faced each other once last season, and sprints did not seem to be a major focus for Marit.

kikkan_sochi_odds

 

All three, Bjoergen, Falla and Ingemarsdotter did many fewer freestyle sprints last season than the year before, and I have no idea to what degree they will all consider the Olympic sprint a “focus” race next season. But there are 5 freestyle sprints (if you count the one during the TdS) prior to Sochi next year. Those five races will probably be the most informative on the question of picking a favorite for Sochi. But at the moment, I still consider the gold medal basically a toss-up between Kikkand and Marit.

(Allowing, of course, for the fact that sprinting is insane, and crashes can happen at any time to anyone. You never know…)

Oslo Seeds & Kikkan/Marit Update

First some quick seeds calculated for Oslo’s freestyle mass start races:

MenWomen
NORTHUG PetterBJOERGEN Marit
OLSSON JohanKOWALCZYK Justyna
GJERDALEN Tord AsleJOHAUG Therese
BAUER LukasSTEIRA Kristin Stoermer
VYLEGZHANIN MaximSKOFTERUD Vibeke W
COLOGNA DarioKALLA Charlotte
RICKARDSSON DanielHAAG Anna
ANGERER TobiasFESSEL Nicole
SOEDERGREN AndersZELLER Katrin
ROETHE SjurROPONEN Riitta-Liisa
REICHELT TomSHEVCHENKO Valentina
CHERNOUSOV IliaLAHTEENMAKI Krista
BABIKOV IvanRANDALL Kikkan
DI CENTA GiorgioSTEPHEN Elizabeth
HARVEY AlexTCHEKALEVA Yulia
HELLNER MarcusSAARINEN Aino-Kaisa
ELIASSEN PetterNOVIKOVA Valentina
DOLIDOVICH SergeiDOTSENKO Anastasia
MORIGGL ThomasSARASOJA-LILJA Riikka
JOHNSRUD SUNDBY MartinJOHANSSON NORGREN Britta
NOUSIAINEN VilleJEZERSEK Barbara
CLARA RolandBROOKS Holly
GLAVATSKIKH KonstantinNYVLTOVA Eva
TSCHARNKE TimLINDBORG Sara
DUVILLARD RobinKOLOMINA Elena
SIMILAE TeroHERMANN Denise
BAJCICAK MartinORGUE Laura
YOSHIDA KeishinKOBAYASHI Yuki
REHEMAA AivarMACIUSZEK Paulina
FISCHER RemoANTSYBOR Maryna

Finally, a commenter on my last post asked about how often Kikkan and Marit had actually met in a sprint final. The answer is that it has happened (in major events) nine times, and Kikkan has won 3 of them, include the most recent race in Finland. The other two were World Cups, both freestyle, in 2011 and 2008. The other six times Marit has won.

Kikkan vs Marit In Sprints

Since Kikkan Randall locked up the Sprint World Cup title this weekend with a (narrow) win over Marit Bjoergen, I thought it might be instructive to review their head-to-head history in sprinting:

kikkan_marit

 

The dashed line is the trend for freestyle races and the solid is classic. Dots in the red are victories for Kikkan and vice versa. With them meeting in only one freestyle sprint thus far this season, there isn’t enough data to continue that trend line beyond last season (numerically, at least).

This doesn’t take anything away from Kikkan’s accomplishments, but think this makes it pretty clear that it would be interesting to go through a season where Marit actually really wanted to win the Sprint World Cup overall title, and put every sprint on her schedule.

World Cup Winning Streaks

I noted in a Tweet that Marit Bjoergen is the only skier since 1992 to win each of the four opening World Cup events (sprint and distance) in a row. But if you relax that condition to allow for streaks occurring at any point in the season (and include Olympic and World Championship events), Bjoergen isn’t quite as unique.

(Everything that follows only applies to the last 20 seasons.)

Bjoergen herself won four events in a row back in 2009-2010, and she actually won 5 in a row just last season. Three other skiers have won four events in a row: Vaelbe, Smirnov, Northug and Lazutina. Two other skiers have won 5 in a row: Bente Skari and Manuela Di Centa.

But even Bjoergen has not yet reached the rarified territory of Elena Vaelbe (6 in a row in 1994-1995) or, who else, Bjoern Daehlie who won 7 in a row in 1995-1996.

However, if you look at everyone with a winning streak of any length (of at least 2 races), Bjoergen has done this in 7 different seasons, more than either Daehlie (6 times) or Vaelbe (5 times). Of course, counting the number of times a skier has had a winning streak of at least two races basically limits us to people active from the late 90’s onward, since the folks from the early 90’s had much of their careers in seasons I don’t have data on. And even Daehlie was doing World Cup races prior to the start of my data, so even the comparison with folks of that era is suspect.

Interestingly, over 20 seasons, I found only 33 unique people who have won at least two major international races (WC, OWG, WSC) in a row. Which probably speaks to how difficult it is to consistently be one of the best skiers in the world.

An update on the Marit vs Justyna rivalry

You’ll recall that recently this rivalry has been fairly one sided, no matter how much Justyna’s fans want to believe otherwise. The previous two season simply saw Marit winning far more of their head to head match-ups. At the start of the season, things looked even worse for the Justyna camp, as she struggled quite a bit in the early races.

But Justyna may have simply been using those as training for the Tour, as she fared much better last week against Marit. Let’s take a look at how their complete history stand as of now:

So these are just the distance races, measured in difference in percent back. Values above zero mean Marit won and vice versa. Marit had the better of this match-up for two straight seasons, with the occasional lapse. This season, you can see the early group of really poor races for Justyna, and then during the Tour things were more tilted towards Justyna, though the margins weren’t terribly large, for the most part.

As for sprinting:

Marit is still ahead on this score, though we’ve only had a handful of sprint races thus far.

So my question is: will Justyna, having clearly peaked for the Tour, slide back again to being mostly beaten by Marit? Or will she be able to sustain this level of fitness through the rest of the season?

Odds + Ends From Kuusamo

Annsi Pentsinen

Doogiski over at NordicXplained asked how Pentsinen’s 4.3 second win in qualification on Friday stacks up historically. Quite impressively, it turns out.

That’s the second largest qualifying round winning margin for the men’s field in WC, OWG or WSC races. The only larger one was almost 10 years ago, with a 4.7 second victory by Björn Lind in a freestyle sprint in Germany in December of 2001. So we’re reaching back to the very beginning years of sprinting here.

Ola Vigen Hattestad came close to this once last season, winning qualification by 3.86 seconds.

A winning margin greater than 4 seconds in qualifying has happened more often with the women: six times. And it’s basically a who’s who of dominant female skiers over the past decade: Skari, Neumannova, Bjørgen (twice), Kowalczyk and Majdic. Skari’s is particularly absurd. She won qualifying in a WC sprint in Italy way back in the day (December 2001 again) by 8.4 seconds! It was classic, so maybe waxing was an issue, or maybe Skari was just that fast. Interestingly, the woman she beat that day be 8.4 seconds was Petra Majdic.

More generally, the typical winning margin in qualification is just under a second for the men and about 1.5 seconds for the women. Read more

Can Bjørgen Repeat Her Dominant Performance?

Marit Bjørgen pretty much wiped the floor with folks last year in distance events:

As a stats guy, when I see extreme events I tend not to expect them to repeat themselves. The general principle here is called regression to the mean. Extreme events are just unlikely, so it doesn’t make sense to expect them to happen repeatedly. From a numbers perspective, Bjørgen’s season was pretty much unrivaled, so if I were a betting man I’d wager that she won’t be as dominant next year.

At the very least, I wouldn’t expect her to win by a consistently large margins over the field, even if she actually wins nearly as many races. But you never know!

When people have had extremely good seasons in the past, sometimes they can sustain is for a few years in a row, other times not. For example, here are some examples of some men who had a strong season but weren’t really able to sustain that level: Read more

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