Monday, 16 January 2012

Deja vu?

Walter Bageshot, a nineteenth century politican and businessman, was once quoted as saying the following: “Life is a school of probability”. For us at least, he was right.

Our whole lives are peppered with the mention of probabilities, statistics, percentages and figures. Quite some time ago, these bitesize bores jumped into the world of advertising. Now, it is impossible to watch or buy anything without being bombarded with facts about its level of carbon neutrality, antioxidant performance, the number of years it will shave off your appearance and how many of your five a day it is. Sport is of course no exception: modern competitions are saturated with seedings, world rankings and future performance predictions.

In a world run by stats, is gymnastics exempt? In other words, are an athletes probabilities of striking gold affected by those that went before them? Inspired by a recent thread on intlgymnast, I began to wonder what the 2012 medal roster might resemble if history is anything to go by.

So, I took the gold medal winners from the four previous Olympics and collected their finishing positions in the world championships from the previous year (if they were not in the preceding final, their qualification placement was used, and if they were not in the previous worlds then their best mark at an international competition in the preceding year was used). I then took an average.


Finishing positions of Olympics gold medallists in the preceding worlds: 1,1,4,4
Average: 2.5

According to the average, the Olympic champion on vault in 2012 will be either Oksana Chusovitina or Phan Thi Ha Thanh.

Likely? Seemingly not, although these two gymnasts may well figure into the equation, it would take a catastrophic fall from American wonderwoman Mckayla Maroney for either to strike gold. The way things look right now, it will be a repeat of 1996 and 2000: the reigning world champ will be crowned the Olympic vault queen.

It is worth noting, however, that in all of the last 4 Olympics, the eventual vault champion competed in the world EF in the previous year. This is the only apparatus final of which this can be claimed. 

Uneven Bars

Finishing positions of Olympics gold medallists in the preceding worlds: 1,1,40,1
Average: 10.75

And here is a great example of how averages can be completely meaningless and useless. This is though an interesting selection of numbers nonetheless. With three first place figures, Uneven Bars is the apparatus upon which the reigning champ is most likely to repeat. Some may be confused about why there are 3 numbers ones listed here. As He Kexin was not age eligible in 2007 I took her score from the 2007 Cottbus Cup: a 16.800, which would comfortably have won her the gold at the 2007 world championships ahead of Ksenia Semenova. 40, on the other hand, is the position in which Emilie LePennec qualified on the bars in Anaheim, 2003.

Although none of these averages particularly mean anything, this means even less due to the skewing. According to this inspired system, the best bets for 2012 bars gold are Japanese Tanaka and Minobe. Unlikely.

This does seem to show, though, that uneven bars specialists are more consistent leading from world championships into Olympics. This is, of course, skewed by Khorkina.

Balance Beam

Finishing positions of Olympics gold medallists in the preceding worlds: 4,26,2,8
Average: 10

A very mixed bag of numbers and an average of ten, again pointless and misleading: this position would place Yulia Inshina as the favourite for beam gold next year. Again, not something I am expecting to happen.

What this does show is how unpredictable beam is, and this is of course true. We are relatively accustomed to multiple medallists on the uneven bars and vault, for example. But very few people seem to make an impact on the beam podium on more than a few occasions. Notable exceptions to this include Nastia Liukin and Shannon Miller.

What this suggests to me is that beam is a really hard one to call, and that a lot can change in a short space of time.

Floor Exercise

Finishing positions of Olympics gold medallists in the preceding worlds: 7, 12, 2, 8
Average: 7.25

Another mixed bag of results and another strange average. With this logic, Beth Tweddle would be the 2012 champ. As much as the thought of FX gold on home soil appeals to me, it just won’t happen this way.

So what does this show? In all honesty, absolutely nothing. It is obvious that the only thing impacting upon the medals later this year will be the performances on the day by the athletes present: anything else is just silly speculation (fun for geeks like me, though).

BUT what is interesting is the array of pre-olympic worlds placements we see above. Interesting that a high world championship placement on the Uneven Bars and the Vault is a much better predictor of Olympic success than a high finish on floor or beam. This is clearly because there are more uneven bars and vault specialists than floor and beam specialists, but why should this be? Within the new code, vault and bars are the places that really pack the punch score wise, so this is understandable here. Especially with vault, as such a weak second vault field means maximum payoff for those who can learn two.

To start with a quote and end with another: “from principles is derived probability, but truth or certainty is obtained only from facts” (Tom Stoppard, Playwright). In other words, the above means nothing.  

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