Navigating Depth-of-Field at the PyeongChang World Cup for Canadian Olympic Qualification

Chelsea LittleSeptember 21, 2017
Canada’s Jesse Cockney (r) racing to first in his quarterfinal in the men’s classic sprint at the PyeongChang World Cup, while leading Norway’s Mathias Rundgreen and Daniel Stock. Cockney finished tenth on the day and the result was one of two which has put him on the shortlist for Canada’s Olympic team. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)

As Cross Country Canada (CCC) looks at which athletes have made progress on qualifying for the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, listing those with top-30 World Cup finishes is a good place to start.

But there are a few athletes with those results that don’t come up in conversation.

Simon Lapointe finished 27th in the sprint and Bob Thompson 31st in the World Cup sprint in PyeongChang, South Korea last season – a result that would be bumped up top top-30 status if the Olympic-style scoring employed by CCC for selection, which counts only the top four athletes from each country, removed “extra” Russians from the results.

Paralympic legend Brian McKeever finished 29th in the skiathlon in PyeongChang. And for the women, Annika Hicks and Sadie White finished 26th and 29th (out of 29) in the skiathlon, and 32nd and 34th in the sprint (in a field of 36) — which with Olympic-style scoring would become top-30 finishes.

By a provision in CCC’s criteria, these results won’t count towards nomination to the Olympic team.

“In order to maintain equity and fairness in this selection process, the HPC reserves the right to exclude, or to count only partially, the results of any World Cup event with a weak depth of field,” the criteria state. “The CCC Selection Committee will be charged with evaluating the depth of field in this circumstance based on comparative analysis of World Cups over two seasons (2015-16 and 2016-17). The CCC Selection Committee will bring forth to the HPC any such recommendation to exclude, in whole or part, a World Cup event. This analysis of depth of field will consider time behind the winner (FIS points), an analysis of the top 6, top 12 and top 16 individual athletes or team events in the race based on World Cup ranking, World Cup points, total FIS points of athletes in the race and any other factors that allow for a fair and equitable World Cup depth of field analysis.”

With such a criteria, it’s fairly clear that finishing last in a World Cup race with only 30 athletes would not count towards Olympic qualification.

But in terms of determining what would count, how CCC actually analyzes race results is multifaceted and not entirely transparent.

“It is always best to look at as many data factors as possible when analyzing depth of field – weak depth of field can vary at the same World Cup event depending on gender and type of race,” CCC High Performance Director Tom Holland wrote in an email.

He emphasized that the depth-of-field assessment is rarely used, citing PyeongChang as the only set of World Cups in the last Olympic cycle where results had been excluded for team qualification.

What Results Count as Competitive

Holland and the selection committee looked at different slices of the PyeongChang results. There are multiple ways to meet Olympic qualifying criteria: a top-six sprint result, a top-12 distance result, two top-16 World Cup results (all deemed “Primary Qualification Criteria”), or three top-30 World Cup results (deemed “Alternative Qualification Criteria”). The level of competition at each of these results cutoffs was considered.

And according to Holland, the men’s races were competitive at the top end but not in the middle or bottom of the fields. That’s why Jesse Cockney, who finished 10th in the PyeongChang sprint, can count that as one of his two top-16 finishes and meet CCC nomination criteria – but Thompson, for instance, can’t count the result as his second of three top-30’s.

(Thompson finished 30th in the World Cup Finals sprint in Quebec City in March, and now needs two more top-30’s for a shot at making the Olympics.)

“What would be looked at varies between the Primary and Alternate A Criteria,” Holland wrote. “For the Primary Qualifying Criteria, the depth of field analysis being considered is top 6–16; World Cup ranking of athletes, particularly the number of red group athletes in the race would be the critical starting point of analysis, next would be time behind these athletes compared to similar placing in other [World Cup] events.

“For the Alternate A Criteria, we are only looking at top 30 results counting top 4 per nation,” he continued. “The average top 30 [World Cup] FIS points over the past 2 seasons in that particular race distance per gender is a good indicator to start the analysis. Being in top half of the field (usually, but not always) and the number of top 30 ranked athletes in the race also need to be considered.”

When asked whether it was appropriate to apply a depth-of-field adjustment differently within the results of the same individual race, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) declined to address the specific situation.

“The COC provides national sport federations with a Guide to Drafting Internal Nomination Procedures (INP), which offers a framework, practical advice, and examples they can use in their drafting, interpretation, and implementation of their INP,” COC Manager for Corporate Communications Ricky Landry wrote in an email.

“The COC then reviews all INPs to ensure that they comply with the COC Team Selection Policy, the Olympic Charter and other applicable COC rules and policies. Also, the COC reviews INPs to ensure the qualification and nomination timelines fall within COC and Organizing Committee (OCOG) deadlines. In general terms, the COC Team Selection Policy recognizes the NSF’s authority in setting qualification criteria appropriate for its sport and in determining which athletes and support personnel will be nominated to the COC Team Selection Committee for selection to the Canadian Olympic Team.”

End result: for Lapointe, Thompson, and McKeever, their results were not enough to count towards Alternate Qualification Criteria. For Cockney, 10th was good enough for Primary Qualification Criteria.

“I’ve got the spreadsheet… there were only nine out of the top 30 sprint group [on the start line] at that event,” Holland said in an interview earlier this summer. “So the depth of field and if you look at FIS points, it wasn’t there. But if you look at the top 10, it’s a little more legitimate.”

There were only seven seeded World Cup sprinters on the start line in PyeongChang. All of them bested Cockney in qualification but he beat two of them, Baptiste Gros of France and Simi Hamilton of the United States, in the final results.

That might be important, as Holland indicated that qualification versus heats racing were not necessarily considered in the same way.

“If an athlete does well in the heats, I would be inclined to put more emphasis on the heats,” he wrote.

Transparency and Athlete Expectations

While it was clear to all that the depth of field in PyeongChang would be looked at carefully – Canada was not bringing most of its top athletes, and neither were other countries – the outcome of that analysis wasn’t known.

That marks a major difference from this aspect of the criteria to the rest of CCC’s criteria. It’s fairly clear what athletes have to do to meet World Cup-based criteria: they have to hit certain results, and after a race they can look at the results sheet and immediately know whether they can check that box or not.

At the end of that process, any remaining spots on the roster will be filled at Olympic Trials. Again, there it will be clear what finish is required to be named to the team.

Going into the PyeongChang World Cups, athletes knew that a top-30 might not cut it, but what exactly they would have to do to have a result count towards Olympic qualification was unclear.

“A lot of people didn’t go, so I believe they only counted a top 20 result,” Thompson said in an interview last week. “But I didn’t know that. There was a little bit of awareness that you had to do better than top 30, like maybe making the top 12 would be more respected.”

Likewise, because the method of assessing depth-of-field is not a single mathematical formula that is evenly applied, even glancing at the results after a race may not make clear which athletes in the field had attained qualification standards and which hadn’t.

“In the last few years, I haven’t paid so much attention to what selection criteria is worth in terms of specific scenarios,” Cockney said in an interview this week. “It’s not usually up to us what is deemed a usable race or a competitive race… I can’t decide who the competition is. I can just decide to ski. That’s the attitude I was taking in Korea – just to try to do my best and have a strong day, and thankfully I was able to put together a good day.”

That’s just part of the game, Holland seemed to suggest, saying in an interview that athletes “should have been aware” that normal qualification standards wouldn’t apply before even leaving on the trip to South Korea.

Chelsea Little

Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.

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