Friday, June 14, 2013

World Cup Start Order Made Simple

A Boston Blickbild Exclusive
Our mailbox is always full of letters, e-mails, and tweets asking how the International Ski Federation (FIS) determines the start order of World Cup races. People have questioned why someone in the top seven in a discipline has a start number that does not correspond to his or her current ranking. In fact, this was one of the items on the agenda at the recent FIS planning conference in Dubrovnik. Even the powers that be at the FIS realize that the start order system needs to be simplified so that average fans can understand it. We sent one of our intrepid reporters to Dubrovnik to interview one of the FIS delegates about it. Because this information has not yet officially been released to the general public, the FIS representative asked us to disguise his identity. He wanted to be called Bob. Let's find out what Bob has to say.  
BB: You are European. Why do you want to be called Bob?
Bob: I have always been fascinated with America. Bob is a typical American name.
BB: Fair enough. Please tell our readers a little bit about the current system of determining start order in a race.
Bob: We would take the results of a skier's last 10 races in a particular discipline, add the points together, then divide by 10 to get the average number of points per race. We would take that number and add it to the current season's total.
BB: That system seems pretty straightforward.
Bob: It was. But there was a problem with it. There are usually not ten races in a discipline in a season, so early in the season we had to go back two seasons to get full results. Also, if a racer missed a season due to injury, then we were going back three or even four seasons to get a 10 race average. Another problem is that skiers who are new to the World Cup may not have 10 races to average. They would be stuck with high start numbers. Fans could not understand why new racers who did well kept having start numbers in the 40s and higher.
BB: For newer racers, wouldn't they just use the number of starts that they had and average the points from those?
Bob: The FIS did not want to do that. I don't know why. Maybe it had something to do with maintaining the status quo of racers in the top 30.
BB: Or to make it even simpler, why not just use the previous season's points for the first race of the new season and then only the new season's points to figure out the start order?
Bob: The FIS wants to make sure that the top seven racers are consistently good and not in the best group because they had one good race.
BB: I guess that makes sense. What has changed with the new system for determining start order?
Bob: First of all, we just go back to the previous season to figure out start order and not back two or three. Mathematicians at the FIS developed this formula to get the racers in the correct start order: [PS/(VS/SL)] + [(VF * LF)/4] + CS.
BB: That looks even more complicated than the formula the FIS is currently using. What do all of those letters stand for in this formula?
Bob: PS is the previous season's points in a discipline. CS is the current season's point total. VS is the numerical value of a racer's surname. SL is the number of letters in the surname. VF is the numerical value of the racer's first name. LF is the number of letters in his or her first name. What we do is take the previous season's points, divide them by the numerical value of the surname divided by the number of letters in the surname. Then we multiply the numerical value of the racer's first name by the number of letters in the first name and divide that total by four. Those numbers are added together. The result is rounded off to the second decimal place. The current season's points are then added to this total and the grand total is rounded off to the nearest whole number.
BB: Whoa! Hold on a minute. What do you mean by the numerical value of the first and last names?
Bob: Each letter in a racer's name is assigned a numerical value. Using the English alphabet, A has a value of 1, B is 2, C is 3, and so on to Z equals 26. I'll use Aksel Lund Svindal as an example. The numerical value of his last and first names respectively are 81 and 46.
BB: I see. Can you plug these numbers into your formula so our readers can see how it works?
Bob: Of course. I will use his downhill points from last season. Aksel had 439 points in downhill last season. So it would be [439/(81/7)] + [(46 * 5)/4] + 0, since the new season hasn't started yet. Solving the equations, it would be (439/11.57) + (230/4), which come out to 95.44, rounded to 95. He would start the season in downhill with 95 points. As the season continues, and he accumulates points, his start position could go up or down. As in previous years, only the current season points count for the Crystal Globe. This formula is only used to determine starting position.
BB: Just for fun, who would be the top 7 male downhillers for the first race using your formula?
Bob: From first to seventh it would be: Innerhofer, Paris, Heel, Reichelt, Jansrud, Kroell, and Svindal. I only did the numbers from the top-10 downhillers from last season. Maybe one of the skiers further down the line could be in the top seven, depending on the numerical value of his name.
BB: It seems like this new formula favors those with short last names,  surnames with a lot of letters in the first half of the alphabet, and long first names.  Marie-Michele Gagnon would have an automatic advantage over Lara Gut or Anna Fenninger because of her long first name.
Bob: That is why we divide the value of the first name times the number of letters by four. Then the numerical advantage is not so large. The points from the previous season also help to make up the difference.
BB: I can already see that there is a bug in your formula. Four-time giant slalom globe winner Ted Ligety comes out tenth out of the top 10 giant slalom skiers because of his first name and 10th place Philipp Schoerghofer actually starts with the most points.
Bob: But if Ted keeps on skiing GS the way he has over the past five seasons, he will be back on top.
BB: I also noticed that you only used Aksel Lund Svindal's first name in your calculations.
Bob: That's right. His first name is Aksel. Lund is his mother's maiden name, which many Norwegians use like a middle name.
BB: So if a skier has a hyphenated first name, like Marie-Michele Gagnon or Anne-Sophie Barthet, all of those letters are used?
Bob: That is correct. If Aksel wants his mum's maiden name to count in the calculations, he will need to legally change his name to Aksel-Lund.
BB: Do you think that as this rule goes into effect, skiers will change or lengthen their first names in order to get more points and a better starting position? For example, do you see Ted Ligety becoming Theodore Ligety, Max Franz becoming Maximillian Franz, Anna Fenninger changing to Anna-Kristina Fenninger, or Lara Gut changing her name to Stephanie Gut?
Bob: No. If the skiers with short first names ski well, they will eventually end up in the top starting places and in contention for Crystal Globes.
BB: What happens if a skier missed a season due to injury? Beat Feuz, Bode Miller, and Johanna Schnarf are all coming back after missing last season. Where would they start in their first races?
Bob: Instead of using the full number of points in a discipline, a skier who missed a season would start with 50% of the points that he or she got in the last season in which he or she competed. We would then use the last and first name calculations to determine their starting position. Skiers who missed two seasons would start with 25% of their points. Anyone who missed more than two seasons will start with zero.
BB: How did the athletes feel about this change? I'm sure that Ted Ligety is not happy about a number 10 starting position in GS when he has been the best in four out of the past five years.
Bob: We polled the athletes and got mixed results. Ted, Tina Maze, and Lara Gut were, shall we say, less than thrilled. But others, like Veronique Hronek, Marie-Michele Gagnon, and Dominique Gisin, thought it was great. But in the end the FIS went with this new formula. Of course safety is our number one priority. But one of our other priorities is always being right.
BB: Of course it is. The FIS is always right, even when it is wrong.
Bob: That is our motto.
BB: We at the Blickbild are looking forward to Soelden to see this new start order formula in action. And that concludes another  Boston Blickbild exclusive interview.

The Boston Blickbild. Our motto is: Keep it simple, stupid.

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