Thursday, January 19, 2017

How to balance the Alpine Skiing World Cup schedule?

Only two of the scheduled five men's downhill races so far have taken place this World Cup season, and it is unsure if all canceled races will get a replacement date. That has caused criticism of this season's schedule which was tech-favoring already before the downhill cancellations.

The men's schedule for this season features 15 speed races, nine in downhill and only six in super-G. In technical disciplines, there are 18 races, 10 in slalom and eight in giant slalom. In addition to that, there is one parallel race both in giant slalom and slalom, though parallel racing is almost a separate discipline. Of the two combined races, one had super-G and the other had downhill as the speed leg.

Women also have 15 speed races as opposed to 18 technical races, though the distribution is more even. There are eight races in downhill, seven in super-G, nine in giant slalom, and nine in slalom. Women have only one parallel race, that is in slalom. Of the three combined races, one has downhill as the speed leg, two have super-G.

Having a balanced schedule would be important to keep the overall title battle fair for both speed and tech specialists. To illustrate that, here's an example. If a tech specialist scores 60 points on average in those disciplines' races, he'll score 1080 points in the season. A speed specialist needs an average of 72 points per speed race for that. Or 77 if one race gets canceled without a replacement as it currently seems for men.

The schedules don't look much better for the next three seasons from that perspective. The women's schedules aren't that bad but the men's schedules schedules always have two or three races more in the technical side and parallel races are still more of technical races. Still, looking at those schedules, you could achieve well-balanced schedules with minimal changes.

Firstly, I'd exclude the parallel races that have increased the number of tech races in the World Cup. Those are not real slalom and giant slalom races so they shouldn't be included in the discipline standings either. I acknowledge their importance in attracting new audiences and you want to have the big names racing there. But the incentive should be something else than World Cup overall points; instead give a cash prize or even a separate crystal globe for parallel races.

Secondly, I'd drop the separate combined races from the schedule. You could use those days for speed races. If you still want to have combined races, you can have some downhill races followed by a slalom run to complete the alpine combined. Wengen would be the only exception; the long Lauberhorn course needs to be shortened for combined.

Now let's have a look into how the next seasons' schedules could be balanced.

Women 2017-18 (DH: 8 races, SG: 8, GS: 8, SL: 9, AC: 3)

This is the best-balanced schedule of the next three years and wouldn't really need any changes. If one slalom got canceled, just don't reschedule it, then you'll have eight races in all disciplines but combined.

Men 2017-18 (DH: 9, SG: 6, GS: 8, SL: 10, AC: 2)

This is similar to the current season, though with two changes you could balance the speed and tech races. Val d'Isère is a venue capable of hosting any discipline. Replace the slalom with a super-G there. Bormio (the Italian TBD venue) could increase the number of super-Gs to eight by replacing the alpine combined. That way you'd have a 9-8-8-9 distribution of races in the four disciplines.

Women 2018-19 (DH: 9, SG: 6, GS: 8, SL: 9, AC: 3)

This is the least balanced of the women's schedules in next three seasons. But still, you could achieve a 9-8-8-9 distribution by replacing two of the combined races with super-G races.

Men 2018-19 (DH: 9, SG: 7, GS: 9, SL: 10, AC: 3)

Once again men will have three more tech races compared to speed races. Though similarly to the previous season, by replacing the slalom of Val d'Isère and the combined of Bormio, you could balance the schedule and get nine races in all four disciplines.

Women 2019-20 (DH: 10, SG: 8, GS: 9, SL: 10, AC: 3)

This schedule is easy to balance. Replace two combined races with super-G races and one combined race with a giant slalom. That way you'll get 10 races in all four disciplines.

Men 2019-20 (DH: 11, SG: 8, GS: 10, SL: 11, AC: 3)

You can get a 11-10-10-11 schedule and speed vs. tech balance by replacing the combined races of Bormio and Chamonix with super-G races.

2020 and beyond

I hope the FIS will pay more attention to the distribution of races between each discipline, to give both speed and tech specialists a fair chance to race for the overall title. The trouble in rescheduling the canceled downhill races shows also another problem of the current schedule; the ever-growing schedule is getting too full. For that reason, I wouldn't mind having less races than there currently are.

An alternative for balancing speed vs. tech

If balancing the schedule isn't an option, maybe alpine skiing should have a look at freestyle skiing. In the Freestyle World Cup where athletes usually compete only in one or two disciplines, the overall standings are the aggregate of the average points in each discipline.

Or to make it easier for fans, count only a certain number of races from each discipline into the overall standings, like six as that's the number of men's super-G races this and next season. That would still favor the disciplines with more races as you could afford some bad results, yet still it would be an improvement to the current situation.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Three-way battle on top of the Four Hills Tournament

Daniel-André Tande opened the new year with a victory in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Kamil Stoch achieved a second consecutive second place and became the new Four Hills Tournament leader over the Oberstdorf winner Stefan Kraft. Less than seven points separate the top three at the halfway of the Four Hills while Markus Eisenbichler in fourth place is already 20 points from the lead.

Kraft loses the tournament lead in Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Stefan Kraft started the Four Hills Tournament in Oberstdorf with a victory over Kamil Stoch by 2.8 points, leaving Michael Hayböck in third place 11.8 points behind. Kraft was able to extend his tournament lead over Stoch to 6.1 points in the first round in Garmisch-Partenkirchen; however a second jump three meters shorter to Stoch's saw Kraft losing the tournament lead by 0.8 points as he finished third in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

Stoch leads the Four Hills after two second places

Kamil Stoch has won the World Cup title and Olympic and World gold medals in his successful career but has never had major success at the Four Hills. A victory in any Four Hills competition is still eluding him but he is leading the tournament standings following the second places of the first two competitions.

The battle between Stoch and Kraft has been very close in the first two competitions, as implied by the 0.8-point gap between them. After the first round in Oberstdorf, Kraft was leading Stoch by 4.3 points, yet Stoch reduced the gap to 2.8 points in the second round. In the first round in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the gap extended to 6.1 points as Stoch had his worst jump of the tournament. Yet with a jump of 143.0, Stoch climbed from fifth into second place and took the tournament lead from Kraft by 0.8 points.

Tande recovers into title battle after Oberstdorf's first round

After topping the qualification in Oberstdorf, Daniel-André Tande had a mediocre first competition jump. Only ninth in the first round in Oberstdorf, Tande was trailing Kraft already by 14.8 points. However, the second round started his recovery in the Four Hills title battle. With the best second jump, he finished fourth in Oberstdorf and reduced the gap to Kraft to 12.6 points. In Garmisch-Partenkirchen he topped the first round ahead of Kraft, reducing the gap to Kraft further by two points and trailing the tournament second-placed Stoch by 4.5 points. With a second jump one meter shorter to Stoch's, he claimed his second career World Cup victory in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and is in Four Hills' third place, 6.6 points behind the leader Stoch.

Tande in best form but does he have the consistency?

Tande has shown tremendous form in recovering from the poor first jump in Oberstdorf. He had the best second jump in Oberstdorf and the best first jump in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and his second jump in Garmisch-Partenkirchen was second only to Stoch's. 6.6 points isn't a big gap for the remaining two competitions, equivalent for less than four meters.

However, Tande can't afford another mediocre jump if Stoch and Kraft continue their consistently excellent performances. Especially Stoch has been very solid in all his jumps at the Four Hills, including qualifications and trainings. Fifth in the first round in Garmisch-Partenkirchen was the first time in a competition round when he wasn't in the top two. Including training and qualification rounds, that was his second-worst round; in the trial round he was down in 12th place. Skipping the qualification in Garmisch-Partenkirchen showcased the self-confidence Stoch currently has.

Kraft hasn't impressed with his training jumps but he's been very solid when it matters the most, in the competitions but also in the qualifications. Fourth in the second round in Garmisch-Partenkirchen was his first non-top-three round ranking in competitions and qualifications in the tournament.

Kraft only former champion in the top three

Stefan Kraft is the only former Four Hills champion in the top three, which may make the situation easier for him. In addition to that, the tournament finishes with competitions in Innsbruck and Bischofshofen. Those hills are surely familiar for the Austrian Kraft, even though at least Stoch also has experience of them.

Kamil Stoch is one of the most successful ski jumpers of the 2010s with a World Cup title, two Olympic gold medals, and one World gold medal, yet still his best Four Hills result is fourth from 2013. Now he is finally in his best form at the Four Hills, and his earlier championship success implies that he can perform at his best under the pressure of a title battle.

Daniel-André Tande is the contender with no previous experience of being among major title favorites. The first jump in Oberstdorf looked like he was folding under the pressure, yet he recovered from it with a brilliant second jump and two days later he celebrated his second career World Cup victory in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, exactly when his Four Hills campaign needed it.

Challengers for the top three far behind

Markus Eisenbichler topped the qualification in Garmisch-Partenkirchen but had to settle for a fourth place in the competition, missing the podium by 3.5 points. Eisenbichler's gap to the tournament leader Stoch is 29.2 points which is too much for the remaining two competitions given how solid the top three is.

Piotr Żyła climbed from seventh into fifth place past two Austrians who had a disappointing competition in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Third in Oberstdorf and 11.2 points from the lead, Michael Hayböck needed at least to match the lead contenders in Garmisch-Partenkirchen to stay in the Four Hills title contention. However, he was only 10th and the gap to the tournament lead extended into 29.7 points.

Manuel Fettner is having a career-best season at the age of 31. He opened the Four Hills with a fifth place in Oberstdorf and a third place in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen qualification increased the expectations. However, he achieved only a disappointing 10th place, dropping him down to seventh place in the tournament standings, 36.8 points from the tournament lead.

Four Hills leaders closing on World Cup leader Prevc

Domen Prevc came into the Four Hills as the World Cup leader, 158 points ahead of Tande in second place. However, the 17-year-old sensation couldn't meet the high expectations in Oberstdorf where he was only 26th, 53.3 points behind the winner Kraft. Although his Four Hills title chance has gone, he needs to get quickly back to his former level to retain the World Cup standings' lead.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen was more successful for Prevc. Eighth after the first round, Prevc had the third-best second jump and finished in fifth place. However, the Four Hills' leading trio are Prevc's closest rivals in the World Cup standings. Tande has reduced Prevc's lead to 58 points while Kraft is 99 points and Stoch 107 points behind.