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Can Kikkan Randall Win The Sprint WC Title?

With the slew of high profile retirements among female sprinters this year, American skiing fans have been quick to note that the two women ahead of Randall on the overall sprint WC podium this season won’t be returning next year. Clearly, this is an opportunity, but how significant an opportunity is it?

Overall WC point titles put a lot of weight on showing up to as many races as you can and finishing on the podium when you do. (1st place gets double the WC points of 4th place.) This title rewards consistent, across the board sprinting. At the moment, Randall’s big weakness is classic sprinting. She finished 10th, 17th, 21st and 42nd in classic sprints last season. It’s going to be nearly impossible, I think, to win the WC overall without making the finals in at least a few classic sprints.

Working slightly in Randall’s favor is the fact that there are 7 freestyle and 6 classic sprints on the schedule next season, and 2 3 of the classic sprints (vs 1 freestyle sprint) fall in stage race events, which only get around half the WC points. So there are slightly more points to be had from freestyle sprints.

But that’s not much of a difference, particularly when your closest competitors in the overall are making the finals in the sprint races as well, limiting any point gaps you may open up by winning.

The other big wild card is who attends which races. It’s impossible to guess each athlete’s planned race schedule, but without any major championships next year, it’s a safe bet that all the main sprinters will be planning on attending as many races as they can. Bjørgen skipped several weekends last season to prepare for World Champs, but it’s unlikely she’ll miss so many races next year.

Let’s take a closer look at how Randall fared directly against the top female sprinters last season:

The dots mark the median difference in rank (finishing place) for the head-to-head matchups between Randall and each of these skiers. I’ve omitted some key folks who are retiring. The black dot is the median for all races, the red and blue are for just the classic and freestyle races. Positive values (right) mean that Randall had an advantage, and vice versa.

The technique difference is obvious, particularly among her best competitors. There’s no way she wins the WC sprint overall title without being competitive in classic sprints. Keep in mind what that means: Randall has never qualified for the finals in a classic sprint, and has made the semis only four times, ever. She’s going to have to consistently qualify for the finals in classic sprints next season in order to cut her point losses in those races.

Also note that even though Randall ended up third in the overall last season, there were four skiers (not including Majdic and Follis!) who beat her more often than not overall. This is the sort of wild card that race selection (which races athletes attend) and the unbalanced nature of WC points (lots of points for podiums, only a few for 5th-10th) can introduce.

Personally, I think how this plays out depends largely on how dominant Marit Bjørgen is next year. It’s not inconceivable that she’ll win or podium in nearly every race she enters, which will probably lock up any overall titles. However, if we have a significant amount of turnover on the podium that could allow someone like Randall to sneak into the overall point lead with a handful of well timed freestyle sprint victories.

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