Lillehammer: Young podium

What do I notice about the men’s podium from Saturday’s 15k classic race:



Excepting Poltaranin, not much racing at this level between them. In fact, among the youngest men’s distance podiums I have on record (basically since the early 90’s):



Saturday’s race is that unusually low value in the lower right corner. As you can see, there’s nothing to suggest that this is the start of a dramatic trend, as the other ages this year have been all over the map.

How To Win A Medal (Or Come Kinda Close)

Another interesting data-centric post appeared over at NCCSEF, and when it comes to data, I just can’t help myself but comment.

This time we’ve got some slides that seem to be trying to draw a relationship between WJC results and winning a medal at (I believe) the Vancouver Olympic Games. We’re only shown the (partial) results for six skiers, so I’m not sure what exactly the lesson is supposed to be.

We seem to be mixing sprint and distance results together as an indicator for future success. That seems strange to me, but I’m certainly not an expert in that sort of thing. We’ve also selected a curiously successful subset of Olympic medalists to examine. Absent is Pietro Piller Cottrer, who’s best (and only) result at WJC was 32nd (admittedly, a long time ago). Also missing is Aino-Kaisa Saarinen who’s WJC results were 15th and 23rd. How about Tobias Angerer (WJC: 18th, 26th, 28th)? On the other hand, we are shown Marcus Hellner, who’s WJC results were good but not spectacular: 15th and 21st.

The further information provided at the bottom regarding time to an athlete’s first podium also contains mostly skiers who achieved this feat fairly young, but then also two who did not (Gaillard and Rickardsson).

What am I to learn from this? That the right path is to podium at WJC (Northug), except when it isn’t (Bjørgen, Haag)? That the right path is to be successful early in your 20’s on the WC (Northug, Harvey), except when it isn’t (Gaillard, Rickardsson)?

When I read stuff like this, I’m left feeling mostly confused, like I’ve been presented a bunch of data, but that no one has gone to the trouble to transform this data into information. The reader is left alone, drifting in a sea of numbers, wondering what exactly was the author’s point.

I’m absolutely not going to argue with the idea that skiers who show considerable promise early on are more likely to develop into successful WC skiers. Indeed, I’m less interested in the nuts and bolts of what results mean at a given age than I am in effective and clear presentation of data.

I’ve written about connections between WJC results and medal on another occasion and I tried to emphasize the fact that when you look at all the data, there’s certainly a connection, but the different paths that skiers take toward success can vary so much that it’s difficult to create many useful generalizations just from the data.

But let’s revisit this idea with a few simple approaches and see if we can organize the data in a way that’s informative (and maybe interesting too!). First, I’m going to broaden the scope from medals to top ten results at either Olympics or World Championships. The problem with looking only at medalists is that there are just too few of them. Much can be learned by imitating a single good skier, but there’s always the danger that what worked for them only worked because of something unique about them, rather than having stumbled across some universal truth of skiing.

Let’s tackle the connection between WJC results and whether or not someone achieves a top ten result at the Olympics or World Championships. I fit a simple model (actually, not so simple; no OLS regressions here!) and plotted the model’s predictions for the probability of a top ten result at a major championship based on that athlete’s best result at WJC (sprint or distance): Read more

Prediction Game: Results!

Back on Monday I posted the graph shown below and posed a question:

It turns out I didn’t ask my question very clearly, because I had to keep updating the post with clarifications.  So that’s my fault.  Maybe this time I’ll do better.  What I did was plot a part of the time series of FIS points for these five women.  The x axis is time, and the large white grid lines represent around five years.  So the “next race” for these five skiers will not be the same race.  They’re not all about to race against each other.

My question was for you to pick which of the five would have a top three result in a WC, WSC or OWG in their respective next races.  I provided a few more pieces of information: at least one of the women will succeed (so the answer isn’t “none of the above”) and the one(s) that do, it will be their very first career podium.

Here’s the answer in graph form:

Read more

Prediction Game: Who’s Gonna Podium In Their Very Next Race?

Five mystery skiers, all women.  For each skier, their very next  (distance) race is a WC, OWG or WSC race.  Which of them are going to finish on the podium (top 3) in their very next race?

To make things a bit more challenging, I’ve omitted the x axis labels (which is date, not age), so you can’t work backwards from what season I’ve stopped each graph in.  Update: Just to clarify, the tick marks on the x axis represent a time gap of about five years. But I will tell you that the races that I have plotted aren’t limited to major international competitions (WC, OWG, WSC); I’ve plotted every distance result I have for each skier.

Update2: Apparently I can’t seem to write very clearly this morning.  It should also help to know that the “next race” each skier is about to do is potentially a completely different race.  So it’s not like they (or any of them) are about to compete in the same race against each other.

I will also tell you that there is at least one skier who podiums and that for those who do podium, it’s their first career podium.

Leave your guesses in the comments!

I’d say I’m going to post the answers tomorrow, but my traffic probably isn’t high enough to warrant that quick a turnaround.  How about we leave this open until Friday?

Update 3: Yet another reader requests a hi-re version of the graph.  Honestly, I don’t think it will help much.  But I am nothing if not responsive to my readers (click through for full version):


What Does It Take To Win A Medal? (con’t)

We’re picking up from where we left off last time, so go check that out to get up to speed.

What happens if instead of only looking at two groups (skiers reaching the podium, skiers not reaching the podium) we get a little more sophisticated and include more information?

First, let’s just look to see what relationship there might be between someone’s best WJC result and their best WC, OWG or WSC result:

Read more

What Does It Take To Win A Medal?

I recently received the following query from a reader:

I have looked lately into the Junior Worlds results and World Cup/World Championships results of all 2010 Olympic Gold medalists and almost all of them had an outstanding careers while they raced as juniors…If our end goal is to win Olympics then we have to look backwards from it and find common elements. So far the common thread I found based on 2010 Olympic podium athletes that if athlete is not fast by the age 19 the chance of winning Olympics gets very small. I was curious if you looked [at] it from [a] similar angle and from previous Olympic games.

This kind of question comes up a lot, I think, and is related to the posts I’ve been doing that look at plots of age vs. FIS points for skiers broken down by how successful they were at WJC/U23s.

I need to say up front that my ability to tackle this question is extremely limited.  It’s difficult to acquire useful data on top athletes when they were juniors (i.e. prior to age 20 or so).  I focus almost exclusively on results that are available at FIS.  How many junior races abroad aren’t FIS sanctioned?  Even if you start combing the FIS website, you’ll see that results for junior races (other than WJCs) did not really begin to be added with regularity until ~2003.

This means that my only available measure of how fast someone was as a junior is their WJCs results.  Now, I think we can all agree that using two races from one season may not capture how “fast” someone was at that age.  So right off the bat, we should take this with a huge grain of salt.

Read more

Podium Heartbreak

Watching Devon Kershaw’s (CAN) amazing race in the Olympic 50k this past season was both thrilling and a bit heartbreaking.  There’s something of a reality distortion field that takes hold when the Olympics roll around that elevate the top three positions in a cross-country race to near mythic levels.

This is at least slightly bizarre, since, really, why three?  That’s totally arbitrary.  The ancient traditions that guide our sporting world could just as easily have designated the top five as the magic number to worship.

Podium-worship has crept out of the Olympic venue and into less prestigious races over time.  And I’m not really complaining.  There’s something to be said for tradition, meaningful or not.

But it’s a bit odd that we’ve created this arbitrary cutoff, that for no reason other than that we’ve all decided it to be the case, renders a 5th place finish at the Olympics a disappointment.  Which in Kershaw’s case, it kind of was, but kind of not.

If there’s a plus side to podium worship, it’s that it gives fans of the sport something to agonize over.  And any sport worth it’s salt has shit that fans can argue and debate and agonize over.  That’s what makes being a fan so fun!

So.  No one likes just missing a podium finish, particularly in big races like the Olympics or World Championships.  Where does Kershaw’s race stack up compared to results from recent history for Olympic and World Championships? Read more