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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?

[table id=56 /]

You can mess around with this table if you like on your own.  I didn’t look past 6th place, so there could be some 7th or 8th place “near misses” that I’m missing, but I doubt that’s happened much.  You might note that these kinds of things happen in bunches, so you’ll see a handful of people nearly missing the podium from the same race (like both Kershaw and Tobias Angerer in this case).

Of course, this is just Olympic and World Championship races.  What about regular old World Cups?  Well, missing the podium probably isn’t as heartbreaking in this case, but only by a bit.  There’s a huge discrepancy in the World Cup points awarded to the top 3 and everyone else.  So let’s look at the near misses at regular World Cups:

[table id=57 /]

Again, if you explore this table a bit, you’ll see that there are lot more near misses here.  Not surprising, of course, there have been a ton more World Cup races.

It’s one thing to miss the podium.  It’s an entirely other matter to just miss the podium over and over and over again.  So, without further ado, the skiers with the most 4th place finishes at major international events (WC, OWG and WSC):

[table id=58 /]

Ugh.  Don’t feel too bad for Stefania Belmondo, or many of the other people on this list, since they tend to be generally fast skiers anyway.  I mean, if you ski really fast a lot of the time, you’re likely to finish fourth quite a lot actually.

Maybe what we’re really trying to get at is people who’s best result is a 4th, and then to count the number of times these people have finished near the podium.

Voila!

[table id=59 /]

The Count column tracks the number of times each skier has posted a top ten result in a WC, OWG or WSC race, and of course, each of these skiers have actually finished 4th but not better.

But before anyone yells at me…

This list isn’t accurate!  I know for a fact that Marie Helene Oestlund has a Gold and Silver medal from the 1987 and 1991 World Championships.  Ditto for Pirkko Maata, only from the WSC’s in 1989.

This is one of the drawbacks of only having data that go back to the 1991-1992 season[1. I’m working on it.].  Oestlund and Maata are the only old-timers that I could easily spot who don’t belong (i.e. they actually did finish on the podium at some point) but people with better memory/knowledge than myself are invited to mention others in the comments.

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