Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Lukas Bauer vs History


The 2007-08 World Cup Season's most dominant performance was turned in by Lukas Bauer, who turned in no less than 6 victories (including the Tour de Ski) and an obscene FIFTEEN top-five finishes -- almost exclusively in distance races. After seeing his overall world cup rank decline for five consecutive seasons, Bauer made a remarkable resurgence to move from 35th last year to first by a 600 point margin.

The World Cup features the broadest range of elite competitors and levelest playing field it has ever seen; long gone are the days of it being the Scandinavians against the Russians. With this in mind, the question should be asked: did Lukas Bauer just have the most dominant season of international competition, ever?

Thanks to the impressive resources at fis-ski.com, we can investigate this in a halfway-scientific manner. The FIS makes available World Cup results going back to 1982, which gives us 54 seasons (27 years of men and women) to look at. Due to motivational constraints, we're going to distill everything down to World Cup points. It would be nice to look at podiums/top tens for every world cup winner, for every season -- but I'm guessing that's mostly redundant with points scored, and points scored are a lot easier to extract.

So, with the question being "who had the most dominant season," we'll define dominance as being how much you outscore your nearest competitor by over the course of the season. This year, Bauer effectively clinched the World Cup by the beginning of February, and eventually outscored his closest rival (Rene Sommerfeldt) by a margin of 1462-829. For Sommerfeldt to have won, he would have had to increase his scored points by over 76%!

Bauer basically lapped the field, as he more than doubled the points of any racer who wasn't Sommerfeldt or Pietro Piller Cottrer (783). But his performance is, in fact, only the second most dominant in the last 27 years. One skier managed to beat down the competition even harder -- outscoring second place by a whopping 95%. Can you name the skier?

Got an answer? No? Come on, you should be able to get this.

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It only happened 12 months ago! 2006-07 was the year Tobias Angerer won 4 races, had 16 top-fives, and crushed Alexander Legkov by a margin of 1131-580. He more than doubled the points of anyone else.

In short, the two most dominant World Cup seasons ever put together were the last two years, and they happened on the men's side! That's right, despite the popular view that there is more parity with the men, the biggest blowouts have both happened on the men's side as well.

Let's take a look at the five biggest dominations for each gender:

Men (Year - Percent Margin of Victory)
2007 95.00%
Tobias Angerer (GER) - 1131
Alexander Legkov (RUS)- 580


2008 76.36%
Lukas Bauer (CZE) - 1462
Rene Sommerfeldt (GER) - 829

2004 57.76%
Rene Sommerfeldt (GER) - 956
Mathias Fredriksson (SWE) - 606

1984 51.04%
Gunde Svan (SWE) - 145
Thomas Wassberg (SWE) - 96

2003 48.73%
Mathias Fredriksson (SWE) - 876
Rene Sommerfeldt (GER) - 589


Women
2005 75.77%
Marit Bjoergen (NOR) - 1320
Katerina Neumannova (CZE) - 751

1991 71.88%
Elena Vaelbe Trubitsina (RUS) - 220
Stephania Belmondo (ITA) - 128

2003 66.91%
Bente Skari (NOR) - 1392
Kristina Smigun (EST) - 834

2007 60.47%
Virpi Kuitunen (FIN) - 1510
Marit Bjoergen (NOR) - 941

1989 59.05%
Elena Vaelbe Trubitsina (RUS) - 167
Alzbeta Havrancikova (SVK) - 105


Amazingly, the last six years have given us 7 of the 10 largest victory margins on the World Cup, and by seven different skiers. There is no good explanation for why single athletes would be able to distance themselves further from the pack now than ever before -- the only reason I can think of would be that World Cup scoring changed significantly around 2003, and began rewarding victories more than before. This would give dominant skiers a biggest points lead, so perhaps there have always been individual skiers this much better than the field, but our method of analysis didn't pick that up? Looking at the points from the 80s (under 200 per season) it is clear that something was reworked in 1993, where the winning points go from ~150 to ~600.

What about close World Cup Overall races? Have we seen any of those recently?

Depends on what you mean by "recently." Any fan of North American skiing should remember Marit Bjoergen needing to finish in the top seven in Sapporo two years ago to win the overall over Beckie Scott (she was 4th, to preserve a 1036-1020 victory). Other than that, it's been pretty slim pickings. Per Eloffson and Thomas Alsgaard were separated by a mere 3 points in 2002, but all other close men's cup races predate the internet.

The top 5 closest for each gender:

Men
2002 0.39%
Per Eloffson (SWE) - 780
Thomas Alsgaard (NOR) - 777

1990 0.69%
Vegard Ulvang (NOR) - 145
Gunde Svan (SWE) - 144

1992 1.02%
Bjoern Daehlie (NOR) - 198
Vegard Ulvang (NOR) - 196

1983 5.17%
Alexander Savjalov (SOV) - 122
Gunde Svan (SWE) - 116

1982 6.14%
Bill Koch (USA) - 121
Thomas Wassberg (SWE) - 114


Women
1999 0.00%
Stephania Belmondo (ITA) - 768
Bente Skari (NOR) - 768

1986 0.94%
Marjo Matikanen Kallstroem (FIN) - 107
Marianne Dahlmo (NOR) - 106

2000 0.94%
Bente Skari (NOR) - 1176
Kristina Smigun (EST) - 1165

2006 1.57%
Marit Bjoergen (NOR) - 1036
Beckie Scott (CAN) - 1020

1997 3.41%
Elena Vaelbe Trubitsina (RUS) - 940
Stephania Belmondo (ITA) - 909


That's right, the 1999 women's world cup was a tie.

What does all this mean? A sample size of 54 is a bit small to draw major conclusions, but it appears as though the World Cup has actually become LESS competitive in the last few years, especially for men. The men's side seems to have become a revolving door of dominant performances, with skiers able to peak for a year or two far above the competition and then falling back into the pack. This strongly contrasts with the 90s and 80s, when guys like Bjoern Daehlie, Vladimir Smirnov, Gunde Svan and Thomas Wassberg were able to hold spots at the top of the overall standings for five year stretches.

Thus, while year-to-year parity has increased (no one can dominate for many years), inter-year parity has decreased (one guy usually dominates in a given year).

Have a theory on what's causing this? See any obvious flaws in this analysis? Know the real story behind how the World Cup was scored in the 80s? Leave a comment!

The full spreadsheet, with all 54 entries, can be found here.

3 comments:

Luke S said...

An impressive array of ski-nerdiness, says I as I change my baskets for rollerski ferrules and anticipate my first classic rollerski of the spring, upon which I almost certainly will not embark today as I have zero motivation.

Christopher Tassava said...

I've been chewing on this analysis for a while. I'm impressed by the conclusions, which are counterintuitive (to me at least). I certainly wouldn't have guessed that the men's WC has been so thoroughly dominated by a revolving cast of racers in recent years.

As for theories, I'm interested in the fact that the last five years of men's WC have been an exhibition of German dominance - Angerer, Angerer, Teichmann, Sommerfeldt. Even Bauer is apparently a product, to some extent, of the German system, having trained with the German team before the 2007-2008 season.

What is the German ski association doing so well? I'd guess it's a combination of ready access to snow, great athletes who have been long cultivated, and the use of the scientifically-oriented German sport system. I won't venture a guess about how doping might fit into this, but I would like to point out that the recent men's overall winners have all been great distance skiers and terrible sprinters. I wonder if the German training system emphasizes the development of excellent distance racers at the cost of any serious sprinters - at least on the men's side.

I'm still thinking about the women's field, where the pool of the best skiers is more shallow and repeat winners are the norm...

Bootsy said...

I would think the tour de ski had a lot do with it. The massive number of points scored by the winner seems to almost ensure victory. Just look at Cologne, Bauer, and Angerer.

Stephen Hart