This year saw the Kowalczyk/Bjørgen rivalry reach an all-time high; not necessarily between the two athletes, but between their respective fans. The constant trolling and flaming of each other has climaxed on message boards; in particular, the FIS comments section where, as I type this, there are 82 comments, 95% of which are Kowalczyk fans calling Bjørgen a doper, while the Bjørgen fans are calling Kowalczyk fans sore losers.

What I’m trying to get here, is that each side thinks their skier is the best in the world. While Kowalczyk won the Overall World Cup this year, Bjørgen cleaned up at the World Champs. Some will argue Kowalczyk is the best overall, since she won the Overall World Cup, while Bjørgen supporters with ignore that fact and focus on the individual races and the World Champs to cite. So who is truly the better athlete?

Currently, the FIS doesn’t have a clear-cut way to propose who is the best athlete in the world. Sure they have the Crystal Globe for the athletes that accumulated the most World Cup points, but does that really tell the whole story?

This blurriness of the lines makes me think that the FIS should implement a new award for the athlete that has the highest average placing in World Cup races throughout the season. Pardon for the hockey reference, but just because a goalie stops the most shots in the league in one season, it doesn’t necessarily make them the best goalie in the league. Currently, the FIS is set up like this.

To differentiate from total shots stopped/World Cup points to shots stopped per game, World Cup points per race there’s different statistical categories.  The NHL has the .GAA – Goals Against Average, how many goals let in during 60 minutes which is equal to a whole game (ie. 2.29 GAA) – and the SV% – Save Percentage, how many shots the goalie stops (ie. 0.919 SV%)- to determine who is the best goalie on an individual basis.

Obviously, there are certain criteria a goalie must meet, such as playing a certain number of games. It would be fair for a goalie to play one game, get a shutout (letting zero goals in), and not playing again for the rest of the season. Same would apply for the new trophy for the FIS. Usually there is about 30-32 races in a season including those clumped into mini-tours, so if the FIS limited the award to skiers that skied at least 40% (12-13 races) a season, that wouldn’t be entirely unreasonable as it allows for pure sprinters too. I apologize if this is getting a little to Statistical Skier for you, but hold on.

So how would this award play out if it was here this season. Well, simply take the athletes who raced at least 12 races this year (not including World Champs) and divide their points by how many races they entered. Here’s how the Overall World Cup looks with the current format:

Overall

Men Points Women Points
1. Dario Cologna 1566 Justyna Kowalczyk 2073
2. Petter Northug 1236 Marit Bjørgen 1578
3. Daniel Rickardsson 981 Arianna Follis 1310
4. Lukas Bauer 923 Therese Johaug 1173
5. Alexander Legkov 796 Charlotte Kalla 1100

With the World Cup points per race, the top five would look like this

Points Per Race

Men Points Race Average Women Points Race Average
1. Dario Cologna 1566 23 68.1 Marit Bjørgen 1578 19 83.0
2. Petter Northug 1236 20 61.8 Justyna Kowalczyk 2073 29 71.5
3. Emil Jönsson 746 13 57.4 Therese Johaug 1173 20 58.7
4. Lukas Bauer 923 18 51.3 Arianna Follis 1310 27 48.5
5. Daniel Rickardsson 981 23 42.7 Charlotte Kalla 1100 23 47.8

So as you can see Cologna and Bjørgen would take the titles of being the highest quality, or most efficient racers on the circuit. It would settle all the arguments and give the athletes something else to aim for especially since next year is the “lull-year” where there are no Olympics or World Championships.

However, after writing the portion above I realized a couple of speed bumps:

  1. Tours races are only 50 points for the win instead of the traditional 100 and the bonus points at the end of the Tours. In addition, the scoring of the points in tour races and non-tour races are different. For example, World Cup points for a fourth place in a non-tour race is 50% of what the winner gets while fourth place in a tour stage is 80% of the winner.
  2. Bonus World Cup points given out in the La Clusaz, Rybinsk and Lahti pursuits also skew the true numbers.

To remedy this for the sake of the calculation, instead of average World Cup points, the award would have to be measured as average placing based on a hypothetical athlete who would have won every race they entered. If an athlete won every single race of the season, obviously they would aptly have an average of 1. Calculating with placings instead of World Cup points would take out the need to factor in the difference point value for Tour races and non-Tour races.

In the example of Kowalczyk, she entered 26 races all together this year. As expressed by an average placing throughout the year, Kowalczyk’s total placings were 127 in 26 races this year.

(127/26) = 4.884

In the example of Bjørgen she entered only 17 races all together. Bjørgen’s total placing were 43 in 17 races this year.

(43/17) = 2.529

Thus, on average it shows that Bjørgen was over two places better (2.5th vs. almost 5th average) in every race she entered than Kowalczyk throughout the 2010-2011 season.

So taking all factors into account, the best three skiers in the world would line-up like this:

Points Per Race

Men Starts Total Placing Average Placing Women Starts Total Placing Average Placing
1. Petter Northug 18 120 6.6667 Marit Bjørgen 17 43 2.529
2. Dario Cologna 20 143 7.15 Justyna Kowalczyk 20 87 4.884
3. Alexander Legkov 17 197 11.588 Charlotte Kalla 18 136 7.556

So in fact, the King and Queen of the World Championships, are in fact the best skiers this year when you take the World Cup into account. It was close between Cologna and Northug as only 1/2 a placing separated them over the course of the season.

Some will argue that this might not be fair since some athletes cashed in at the low attended Rybinsk races. I say to them, the athletes that didn’t go should go so they can collected some higher places in addition to some potential prize money.

Also, while on the subject of awards for skiers, what about an award for the best new rookie on the circuit. A minimum of five races would be needed to qualify and under a certain age (wouldn’t be fair for all those no-name 30-year-old Russians to get the award every year) and it would go along the same line as the award stated above. We all saw how Hanna Falk burst onto the scene last year, but how many will remember that 5-10 year from now. It was a year that definitely got recognition, but should continue to get recognition in future years and a name on a trophy would remind us when some of the current super-stars came onto the scene.

The U23’s are a great event, but not all the best U23’s are there every year. Look at this year, Harvey on only one race and Johaug who was still eligible, is so good that she doesn’t need to bother with events that are below the World Cup.

As for naming the awards? It seems that the majority of sports in the world have trophies named after great athletes from the past. This is no more apparent than in hockey where every trophy is named after an influential athlete, coach or builder of the sport for their time. Hockey has the “Rocket” Richard Trophy, named after the fiery French-Canadian who played in the 1940’s and was the first player in history to hit 500 goals, to honour the highest goal-scorer of the season and the Vezina Trophy, named after Georges Vezina from the 1920’s dedicated to the best goaltender of the season among others. Baseball has the Cy Young award for the best pitchers of the season while the NBA has the Eddie Gottlieb Trophy for the top rookie.

What if the FIS named these awards the Dæhlie Trophy for the male athlete with the highest average placing and the Skari Trophy for the top female? Currently, the great names of our sport are reserved for the history books and there’s no real recognition of their brilliance except for the odd video on VHS and stories from those old enough to watch them race.

In Canada, we have the Jackrabbits program which was named after the Norwegian-Canadian Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith-Johannsen who introduced not only Canada, but also the USA to the sport of cross-country skiing (This guy was incredible by the way, he lived 111 years). If the program that got us started in the sport was named something bland like “Skiing for kids”, would we really know who the pioneer of the sport was in North America? I doubt it.

With this new trophy in play, it would settle all the qualms that rival fans (read Kowalczyk and Bjørgen) would have with each other and show who is truly show the highest quality skier throughout the year.

Just my 2 cents. Talk to you tomorrow.