Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Some of These Sprinters Are Not Like the Others

The classic sprints at Whistler Olympic Park were pretty damn good, with plenty of matters to ponder, if not admire: Bjoergen charging from wire to wire, Majdic battling through what looks to have been an agonizing injury, Joensson racing well but unexpectedly falling well short of the final, Newell crashing in qualification, and of course the Russians Kriukov and Panzhinskiy turning the men's final into their own private drag race after dispatching the three favored Norwegians.

As soon as Kriukov's boot crossed the line, though, a furor erupted on Twitter and elsewhere about the suspiciousness of the Russians, and especially Panzhinskiy. He seemed to come from the mythical "nowhere" to qualify in first, to dominate his heats, and finally to come within a toe of making good on his #1 bib by winning the gold medal. How could this unknown racer unseat the Norwegians and take the silver? And how could Kriukov, a very good but not stellar sprinter, take the gold?

I'm not going to say that the Russians (or anyone else skiing around the Callaghan Valley) are clean - and doping is clearly the insinuated reason for their success today - but on the other hand, data from the 2005-2006 and 2009-2010 seasons suggest that when it comes to Olympic sprinting, we should expect the unexpected.

Kriukov, today's gold medallist, currently occupies the #4 position in the sprint World Cup rankings with 248 points - only 2 points behind Hattestad in third, 32 points behind Dahl in second, and 79 points behind Joensson in first. (Kriukov is ahead of Northug by 22 points, Oystein Pettersen by 119 points). This season, Kriukov has reached the final four times, amassing three 3rds (Kuusamo - classic, Otepaa - classic, Rybinsk - freestyle) and a 4th (Rogla - freestyle) as well as a 14th (Dusseldorf - freestyle). Though averages aren't the most meaningful means to compare finishes, we can nonetheless venture to say that Kriukov has an "average finish" of 5.4 ((3+3+3+4+14)/5) - a spot in the finals with Joensson, Hattestad, Dahl, and the like.

Silver medallist Panzhinskiy is currently ranked 16th in the sprint World Cup, having taken 5th in his only finals appearance (Otepaa) as well as an 8th (Rogla), a 10th (Kuusamo), and an 18th (Rybinsk). His "average finish," then, is 10.25 - what would have been B-final territory last year.

So Kriukov's excellent performance is just barely better than his usual high standard, while Panzhinskiy's could be considered somewhat more unusual.

How unusual? Actually, not that unusual. In the freestyle sprints at Torino four years ago, two medallists came out of that mythical "nowhere" to take medals: Chandra Crawford, who won gold in the women's freestyle race, and Roddy Darragon, who won silver in the men's.

Going into the Torino games, Crawford was ranked 12th in the World Cup sprint standings, well behind sprint leader Anna Dahlberg. Crawford's 3rd at Davos (freestyle) was her best result and only finals appearance before the Olys, far exceeding her 8th (Oberstdorf - classic), 10th (Vernon - freestyle), and 28th (Dusseldorf - freestyle). Against that backdrop - and an "average finish" of 12.25 (the equivalent of being knocked out in the semifinals) - Chandra's dramatic gold was a fantastic overachievement.

If anything, Darragon - sandwiched between Lind in gold and Fredriksson in bronze - was even more surprising. He entered the games ranked 20th in the sprint standings, having reached the finals only once, taking 6th at Dusseldorf at the beginning of the season. He'd also finished 9th at Davos just before the games, but in between had finished 23rd at Vernon and 26th at Nove Mesto (freestyle) for an "average finish" of 16th. In other words, Panzhinskiy has done substantially better this year than Darragon did in the 2005-2006 season.

Again, none of this should be read as suggesting that Kriukov and Panzhinskiy are or are not legit, any more than it should be read as suggesting that Crawford or Darragon weren't. Rather, a look at the respective racers' accomplishments in the seasons preceding their medals suggests that the Russians' medals are by no means out of the ordinary in the extraordinary setting of the Olympic Games.


Luke S said...

Panzhinskiy (I had to copy that name from the post, couldn't spell it on my own) was the World Junior Champion last year in the Sprint. That, while not putting him on the same level as a World Cup or Olympic champion, does mean that he has been on world-class form for his age group in past years as well.

kuan said...

Too much buildup, too many expectations heaped upon the Norwegian team. In the US, Kris Freeman and Kikkan Randall bear the hopes of the whole US cross country community on their shoulders alone. The only thing we should expect of them is that they try their best and they represent US skiing the best they can... like, uh, not giving up when they're 20 meters behind.

It's time to sit back, enjoy, and watch racing.

Jake Scheckman said...

Nice analysis - its good to see that these guys didn't come from way back in the rankings to win the gold. Its hard to speculate on who is or isn't using performance enhancing substances, and testing is the only way to tell.

That said, the suspicion here isn't that two Russians won, or that their rankings didn't suggest that they would win - sprint finals almost always include a surprise. The suspicion comes from their dominance - Northug was something like 8 or 9 seconds back. That magnitude of win usually doesn't happen at all, let alone by someone lower in the rankings.

Christopher Tassava said...

Good points, all.

Luke, great point about Panzhinskiy's record. Being WJ Champ is nothing to sneeze at.

Jake, the huuuuuge lead was surprising, but less so after reading about the crash which knocked down Pettersen and Poltaranin and apparently impeded Northug and Hattestad. When the Russians heard about the crash, they hit the gas, which could and did make for a big gap. (NBC didn't even show the crash itself until a replay.)

And last, Kuan, yes, I intend to sit back and enjoy the racing now. The pursuits and relays should be especially good.

Anonymous said...

I think a problem thats not been talked about much is that Northug and hattestad was in the second semifinal and therefor had about 10 min to break between the semi and the final wile the Russians got 20 min+

Meaning they had a lot less time to recover. I think it is a disgraceful fuck up that clearly ruined the 2 Norwegians chances.

Anonymous said...

Can we please stop hugging the Norwegians? I mean if there isn't a Norwegian at the top of the podium, everyone gets all worked up, especially Al Trautwig who I think is in love with Northug and Bjoergen. Yes, you can say that the Russians could be suspicious given their recent history, but what about the surprising results of the French at the these olympics, what about Kowalzcyk, what about Bjoergen dominating the sprints yesterday, what about Lukas Bauer at the TDS, what about the Italians again coming to the fruition when it matters the most? Can we just try to enjoy the races and let WADA do it's thing? If there are people cheating in Vancouver, they will be caught, no doubt in my mind...

Jac said...

I'm norwegian and there's no doubt in my mind the best man wins, until otherwise prooved.
The norwegians has been masters of tactics, and the russians used the norwegian tactics agains them. Even if everything had gone well tactically for the norwegians, I'm not shure anyone could beaten the russians.

No norwegian offical, or even journalists has used the d*** word. There was a swede who had some REALLY nasty experiences against "enhanced" competitors who braught it up.

The russians are clean until otherwise is prooved. It was a tactical masterpiece a russian chessmaster worthy!

BTW: The #1 chessmaster at this time is the youngest of all times, and he's norwegian!!!

Jac said...

Before Marit Bjørgen took Norways 1. gold medal 150% of our population wanted a revolt. Throw the King and government, war against Canada, USA and Germany was natural. And nuke the rest of the world.
Then Bjørgen came and set the world in order. NIICE!!

Exept for a slovenian lady who were beaten, but wouldn't lie down. She had 4 broken ribs, and a puncured lung. But still she wouldn't lay down. For every heat she went through she battle herself to the next level, screaming and crying in the finishing area. But still went all the way to the final. She got a bronse medal. Even in my narrow norwegian mind she will remain as the greatest athlete of this olympic championship together with Aksel Lund Svindal.

He fell in Beaver Creak at max speed in the downhill competition in 2007. Broke several bones in his face, and got a 15 cm laceration to his groin and abdominal area. In other words, he was 95 % dead. The year after he went back and won the downhill competition the same place.

So far he got a silver medal in downhill, and the gold in super G.

Hopefully Petra Madijc will continue at least until next years World Championship in Oslo.
If so, I will seriously consider to take the trip. And I HATE Oslo!!

My best wishes to Petra, but even Petra complete (sic) would seen Marit Bjørgens ass at the finishing line today!