Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Who Wins Relays? (Part I: Women)

The 4x5 and 4x10 relays are the only direct tests of national teams. Apart from including only half as many skiers (and only one technique), team sprints require skills too specialized to make them true tests of an entire team's fitness - and a distance race that features team tactics is a rare event. Not for nothing, then, are the men's and women's relays viewed as the best opportunities to see which country has the best all-round squad.

With that as background and with the relays at the Oslo World Championships ahead of us on March 3 and 4, 2011, it's worth looking more closely at the relay events over the past few years to see which teams (and which racers) win, which countries takes the place and show spots, and how many teams vie for relay medals in any given year.

To that end, I've compiled information on the important teams (and team members) in all the key relay races since the 2005-2006 season: each relay in the Olympic Winter Games or World Ski Championships and each relay that occurred in the run-up to those big events. (I didn't include any relays that occurred after the Olys or Worlds, since they didn't have any effect on the makeup of the teams at those events. I also didn't include any races in the 2007-2008 season, when neither a Worlds nor an Olympics occurred.) The list of women's relays is available here.. Take a look at it for the information behind my conclusions below.

First of all, the number of "important" relays (i.e., before and at the Worlds/Olys) varies from two to four - a significant number when you consider the need to figure out both who should ski and in which order:
  • 2005-2006: two World Cup races and the Torino Olympics
  • 2006-2007: three World Cups and the Sapporo Worlds
  • 2008-2009: two World Cups and the Liberec Worlds
  • 2009-2010: just one World Cup before the Vancouver Olympics
  • 2010-2011: three World Cups - at Gällivare, La Clusaz, and Rybinsk - before the Oslo Worlds
Second, and without accounting for the effect of the simple number of relay events in a given year (that kinda crunching is more Statistical Skier, less Nordic Commentary Project), fewer countries are contending for the podium spots from one year to the next. In both 2006-2007 and 20o5-2006, five different nations put teams on the podiums at World Cups or the Olympics/Worlds. In 2009-2010 and 2008-2009, four nations made the podiums - just one team, but a 20% drop. Part of the explanation for this narrowing is that Russia has completely dropped out of the relay competitions since the 2005-2006 season, during which they made the podium in one World Cup and won the Olympic gold at Torino - with at least one doper (Tchepalova) on the team.

The smaller number of contenders can also be partly explained by retirements: of the Italian stalwart Gabriela Paruzzi and of the Czech superstar Katerina Neumannova. Until Gällivare, Italy hadn't made a relay podium since 2005-2006, and the far weaker Czech team hadn't done so since 2006-2007 - when Katka was their anchor.

Third, and as the Neumannova example illustrates, superstar skiers can only do so much for a relay team - see also Poland and Slovenia and, to some extent, Sweden, at least prior to Kalla's maturation in 2008. Germany is a case in point: without a single skier on a par with Kalla, Bjørgen, or Kowalczyk, they managed nonetheless to use Kuenzel-Nystad and Sachenbacher Stehle as half of a pretty successful squad, one that earned silver medals at Vancouver, Liberec, Sapporo, and Torino (and three World Cup podiums). Not even Norway did as well in the big races, earning "just" a gold at Vancouver and a bronze at Sapporo (plus eight WC podiums in Worlds/Oly seasons - but who's counting?). Can we say that Claudia and Evi are the best relay racers around?

A fourth, fairly obvious observation: teams that don't make the podium early in the season have a hard time making the podium at Worlds or the Olympics. Sure, sure: it's because fast skiers win. Over the past five years, this has happened only three times - which may it's frequent (three out of the four big races) or rare (three medals out of twelve possible). Italy missed the podiums in the 2005-2006 World Cup but then won the bronze at Torino, and Germany won two big-race medals after failing to make the podium earlier in the season - at Vancouver (after just one World Cup relay) and at Liberec (after two, one of which they didn't even enter).

Before inviting reactions to these conclusions or other assessments of the data, one and a half last points: it's not always best to run your "best" skier last, but it helps. Norway and Finland have well with Bjørgen and Saarinen skiing anchor, but they've done well with other orderings, too: Norway with Johaug last won gold at Vancouver, Finland with Muranen last won gold at Sapporo. On the other hand, Sweden hasn't reached a podium without Kalla on anchor since the 2006-2007 season (and later missed the Sapporo podium with Nordgren as anchor).

For what it's worth, then, I think the Gällivare podium will be the Oslo World Champs podium: Norway with gold, Sweden and Italy for the minor medals. Even with two more relays to go - at La Clusaz in the middle of December and Rybinsk in early February - no other recent relay contender seems to have enough racers to make a serious run at Oslo. Is it too late to petition FIS to allow a superteam of Majdic, Saarinen, Sachenbacher Stehle, and Kowalczyk?


yvesson said...

Hej, I think the strongest norwegian team is with Bjørgen first or second, since she's better at classic than Johaug and Johaug is better at skating. Also Bjørgen could use Kowalczyk and go away early, and that's required since Johaug and KSS are terrible sprinters. Atm, though, just no other team/country can match any configuration, Norway could even balance 2 very good teams able to make it 1 and 2 on the world cups.