Friday, February 21, 2014

OLYMPICS, DAY 13: Why You Don't Send Three-Man Moroccan Ski Teams

As you have surely discovered by now, one of the Winter Olympics' longest, bitterest enemies is the very weather on which it depends. Timing for good weather is impossible. You're announcing a location seven years out. Competition dates are announced long, long, long ahead of the actual competition. Weather forecasts see their accuracy reduced to the point of blind guessing as little as ten days out, which is less time than the Olympics take to hold. You have to hope it's cold, but not too cold. Snowing, but not too much. For God's sake, don't warm up. As a result, when the weather doesn't cooperate, the organizers have to start rescheduling: moving things up, moving things back, cancelling the odd training run or cutting multi-run events like luge and bobsled short by a run or two if they must.

Which means the rules of an event might get played with a bit. The inaugural edition of the men's combined pursuit (now converted to the skiathlon) took place in Albertville 1992. The leading skiers- and I'm going off David Wallechinsky's Winter Olympics almanac here- thought the playing with rules had happened when, it being a pursuit event, the leaders had been sent off first. It was a two-day event back then, instead of the single race it is now, with a 10-kilometer classical-style race taking place on Day 1, and a 15-kilometer freestyle race on Day 2, with the leaders getting a head start based on how they did in the 10-kilometer classical. The problem was, if you'll scroll to section 314.6.4 of the rulebook (PDF), as a principle, the top skiers are entitled to the most advantageous segment of the starting order of a cross-country race, whenever it is that may be. Sometimes it's early, sometimes it's late. In this particular instance, late would have been better, and the leading skiers made that known. Odd Martinsen, head of the Nordic Skiing Commission of the International Ski Federation, had to point out to them that pursuit events don't work that way. The leaders always go first in pursuits. The end.

But that wasn't the big fiddling. (And Bjorn Daehlie, the fourth man to start, ended up winning his first gold medal in that event, with wingman Vegard Ulvang, the first man away, taking silver, so it didn't matter that much.) The fiddling took place at the other end of the ranking table. You see, the women were scheduled to get on the course for their pursuit event as soon as the men were done. The second-to-last man to take off, Andrea Sammaritini of San Marino, was scheduled to begin 20 minutes, 1 second after Ulvang. Not all that big of an issue; this was only five seconds behind third-to-last Mohamed Oubahim of Morocco. Fellow Moroccan Mustapha Tourki was 18 minutes, 39 seconds off the pace. The last man to take off, though, was the third Moroccan on the course, Faissal Cherradi.

Cherradi was 43 minutes, 31 seconds behind.

Had he been started on schedule, not only would Bjorn Daehlie already have been wearing gold for about the last five and a half minutes of his wait, 40th-place Dany Bouchard of Canada would be crossing the finish line right as Cherradi would have taken off. And again, they had the women right there waiting for the men to wrap up so they could hit the snow. In the interest of time-saving, the organizers wound up sending Cherradi off right alongside Sammaritini, 23 minutes and 30 seconds ahead of schedule.

Sammaritini had no problem fending off his newfound rival, crossing the finish line about 42 minutes before him. Cherradi repeatedly fell down trying to navigate the course, finally staggering over the line 2 hours, 4 minutes, 7.8 seconds after Ulvang had originally set off (though officially it was 2:27:37.8), and about a half hour after next-to-last-place Oubahim had finished.

As it turned out, had the first of the women been sent off in their 10-kilometer pursuit as soon as Oubahim crossed the line (1:12:02.2 into Cherradi's run), the last-place finisher in THAT event, Jenny Palacios-Stillo of Honduras, who in fact finished in 48:49.6, would have stopped the clock at 2:00:51.8 ...still 3 minutes, 16 seconds ahead of Cherradi.

Stricter qualifying standards were put in place for Lillehammer.

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