Friday, September 20, 2013

Does the Road to Rio Start in Antwerp?



"The throwaway Worlds."

That's what many have called the post-Olympics Worlds (henceforth, POW). With the past Olympics still fresh in our minds and with the next Olympics still so far away, the competition just seems so inconsequential.

Nevertheless, there are those entities that think that every competition of this quadrennium is important. Chief among them is the Daily Mail. In an attempt to capitalize on the post-London buzz, the newspaper has created an entire series called the Road to Rio. No offense to Max Whitlock, but every time I read one of those headlines, I roll my eyes so hard it hurts, and then, I mutter, "Rio's three years away."

But once the initial snark subsided, though, my curiosity, I'll admit, did get the best of me. I wanted to know just how many POW medalists find themselves on the podium at the next Olympics. At first, I wanted to know just because, but after reading about Bruno Grandi's latest round of proposals in the works, I felt even more pressure to crunch some numbers.

Armed with my diamond-encrusted, monogrammed pocket protector, I made some spreadsheets for the ladies and the gents, and here's what I found.





If Antwerp is anything like previous POWs, the Road to Rio will start for someone…


When I first started looking at the question of POW medalists, I compiled the data on an apparatus by apparatus basis. I wanted to see if some events have produced more POW medalists who have gone on to be Olympic medalists than others. In other words, how frequently do POW medalists on vault go on to win vault medals at the next Olympics? 

Here are tables with the categorical data:


GymnastWorld YearOlympic YearEvent(s)
Koji Gushiken19811984All-Around
Nobuyuki Kajitani19811984Parallel Bars
Vladimir Artemov19851988All-Around
Lou Yun19851988Vault
Andreas Wecker19891992Pommel Horse, Rings
Vitaly Scherbo19931996All-Around, Vault, Parallel Bars
Yuri Chechi19931996Rings
Alexei Nemov19972000Floor
Eric Poujade19972000Pommel Horse
Szilveszter Csollany19972000Rings
Li Xiaopeng19972000Parallel Bars
Marian Dragulescu20012004Floor, Vault
Yordan Yovchev20012004Floor, Rings
Marius Urzica20012004Pommel Horse
Evgeni Sapronenko20012004Vault
Xiao Qin20052008Pommel Horse
Leszek Blanik20052008Vault
Li Xiaopeng20052008Parallel Bars
Kohei Uchimura20092012All-Around
Zou Kai20092012Floor, High Bar
Krisztian Berki20092012Pommel Horse
Feng Zhe20092012Parallel Bars
Epke Zonderland20092012High Bar

GymnastWorld YearOlympic YearEvent(s)
Ma Yanhong19811984Bars
Julianne McNamara19811984Bars 
Elena Shushunova19851988All-Around, Beam
Dagmar Kersten19851988Bars
Daniela Silivas19851988Beam
Cristina Bontas19891992Floor
Gina Gogean19931996All-Around, Beam
Simona Amanar19972000All-Around
Svetlana Khorkina19972000Bars, Floor
Svetlana Khorkina20012004All-Around
Nastia Liukin20052008All-Around, Bars, Beam, Floor
Cheng Fei20052008Vault
Oksana Chusovitina20052008Vault
He Kexin20092012Bars
Deng Linlin20092012Beam


As you can see, every quad, at least one gymnast finds a path between the podium at the POW and the podium at the Olympics.

Don't believe me? Here's the data in a different form:

The Men
QuadNo. of Male Gymnasts
Who Won Medals
at the POW and
the next Olympics 
1981-1984
2
1985-1988
2
1989-1992
1
1993-1996
2
1997-2000
4
2001-2004
4
2005-2008
3
2009-2012
5
Average
2.875


The women
QuadNo. of Gymnasts
Who Won Medals
at the POW and
the next Olympics 
1981-1984
2
1985-1988
3
1989-1992
1
1993-1996
1
1997-2000
2
2001-2004
1
2005-2008
3
2009-2012
2
Average
1.875



But who will find themselves on that path? Hint: Younger is still better


I get it. As a gym nerd, you want to be able to identify who the next star is going to be, and you don't want to waste your time falling in love with a gymnast who is just going to disappear into a cloud of smoke halfway through the Quad. So, you want to know what characteristics you should look for.

Well, that's a very tricky question to answer. When I first looked at my categorical data, I didn't really see a unifying factor. Some gymnasts had good form. Some did not. Some were exciting to watch. Others were not. Some won medals at the preceding Olympics. Others did not. Some won medals at the Worlds before the next Olympics. Others did not.

But then I decided to look into ages, starting with the women…


NameWorld YearAge on Day 1
of Worlds
Cristina Bontas
1989
15 years, 10 months
Gina Gogean
1993
15 years, 7 months
Simona Amanar
1997
17 years, 11 months
Svetlana Khorkina
1997
18 years, 7 months
Svetlana Khorkina
2001
22 years, 9 months
Nastia Liukin
2005
16 years
Cheng Fei
2005
17 years, 5 months
Oksana Chusovitina
2005
30 years, 5 months
He Kexin
2009
17 years, 9 months
Deng Linlin
2009
17 years, 5 months
Median

17 years, 7 months
*I haven't included the 1981 and 1985 Worlds here because I couldn't find the dates for the competitions. FYI: In 1981, Julianne McNamara turned 16, and Ma Yanhong turned 17. In 1985, Daniela Silivas turned 13, Dagmar Kersten turned 15, and Elena Shushunova turned 16. 



As you look at the table, please keep in mind that the minimum age was raised from 15 to 16 in 1997.

Prior to 1997, the women were fairly close to the minimum age restriction of 15, and after 1997, they were still pretty darn close to the minimum age limit of 16. Nastia, arguably the most successful POW medalist in a single quadrennium, happened to be 16 years in 2005.

Now, I'm not saying that the youngest gymnasts in Antwerp will automatically become the next medalists, but being young certainly does help. Why? Well, biology explains a lot.

While there has been a movement to embrace older female gymnasts, being younger makes gymnastics easier. David Epstein talks about this problem in his book The Sports Gene. "By around age fourteen, the average girl is closing in on her lifetime maximum sprint speed," he writes. "[After puberty], as estrogen causes fat to accumulate on widened hips, most girls experience a plateau or decline in vertical jump." That doesn't seem to bode well for female gymnasts, now does it?

Yes, there will always be exceptions. *Cough Chusovitina.* (I'd be curious to know her hip size and her body fat percentage.) But generally speaking, even though medaling well into one's mid- to late- 20s is possible, keeping up with the youngsters does become more difficult as gymnasts age. So, if a gymnast is going to win a POW medal and an Olympic medal, it helps to start off on the younger side at the beginning of the quad so that by the time the Olympics roll around the gymnast is 19 or 20.

To be sure, this is not to say that Aliya Mustafina, who will turn 19 in Antwerp, can't go on to win medals in Rio, but she certainly has her work cut out for her.


On the men's side…

When it comes to age, things aren't quite as clearcut.


NameWorld YearAge on Day 1
of Worlds
Andreas Wecker
1989
19 years, 9 months
Vitaly Scherbo
1993
21 years, 3 months
Yuri Chechi
1993
23 years, 6 months
Alexei Nemov
1997
21 years, 3 months
Eric Poujade
1997
25 years
Szilveszter Csollany
1997
27 years, 4 months
Li Xiaopeng
1997
16 years, 1 month
Marian Dragulescu
2001
20 years, 10 months
Yordan Yovchev
2001
28 years, 8 months
Marius Urzica
2001
26 years
Evgeni Sapronenko
2001
22 years, 11 months
Xiao Qin
2005
20 years, 10 months
Leszek Blanik
2005
28 years, 8 months
Li Xiaopeng
2005
24 years, 3 months
Kohei Uchimura
2009
20 years, 9 months
Zou Kai
2009
21 years, 7 months
Krisztian Berki
2009
24 years, 6 months
Feng Zhe
2009
21 years, 10 months
Epke Zonderland
2009
23 years, 5 months
Median

22 years, 11 months

While the ages do not huddle as closely together for the men as they do for the women, a trend seems to exist. Sure, there are the freaks of nature--like Leszek Blanik and Yordan Yovchev on the older side and Li Xiaopeng on the younger side--but normally, the POW medalists are going to be more in the 21-23 range, which is a fairly typical age for a POW medalist.



Do certain events provide a clearer road from the POW to the Olympics?



Kind of. There isn't an event that produces a POW-to-Olympics medalist every year, but on some events, the men more frequently find themselves on the podium three years later.


Frequency table for the men by event:

EventFrequency*Relative
Frequency**
All-Around
4
16.67%
Floor
4
16.00%
Pommel Horse
5
20.00%
Rings
4
15.38%
Vault
5
20.83%
Parallel Bars
6
25.00%
High Bar
2
8.33%
*Number of times a POW medalist has won an Olympic medal three years later on the same event.
**Number of POW medalists who win an Olympic medal three years later on a particular event ÷ Total number of POW medalists on that particular event. Example: 20% or 1 out of every 5 pommel horse POW medalists has won a medal on pommels at the following Olympics.

As you can see, in the last 30+ years, 6 times has a parallel bars specialist won a medal at the POW and then won a medal on parallel bars at the Olympics. That's 1 out of every 4 POW medalists on parallel bars. (Keep in mind, though, that Li Xiaopeng did this twice, so he could be seen as an outlier.) Other than that, vault and pommel guys tend to have more success 3 years after the POW.


On the women's side…


Frequency table for the women by event: 

EventFrequency*Relative
Frequency*
All-Around
5
20.83%
Vault
2
8.33%
Bars
6
23.08%
Beam
5
20.00%
Floor
3
12.50%
*Number of times a POW medalist has won an Olympic medal three years later on the same event
**Number of POW medalists who win an Olympic medal three years later on a particular event ÷ Total number of POW medalists on that particular event. Example: 20% or 1 out of every 5 beam POW medalists has won a medal on beam at the following Olympics.


Again, there isn't an event where female gymnasts win medals all the time. Womp. Womp. But over the last 30+ years, 6 times has a bars specialist won a medal at the POW and then won a medal on bars at the Olympics. That boils down to a funky fraction: 3 of every 13 POW medalists. (Again, keep in mind, though, that Svetlana Khorkina did this twice, which makes her a bit of an outlier.) In the all-around and beam, roughly 1 of every 5 medalists have found their way from the POW podium to the Olympic podium three years later.


The Bottom Line:


I'm not convinced that the road to the next Olympics boils down to the events per se. It might be a small part of the equation, but if I had to venture a guess, I really think that success throughout a quadrennium has to do with the athlete. As I have shown, it could be a question of age, but it could also be:


  • It can be a question of body structure. If you have wider hips, the angle from your hips to your knee is larger, which, in turn, increases your risk of tearing your ACL. Something else I learned from The Sports Gene.
  • Related to that, has this gymnast had a major injury? Recovery sucks. 
  • How well is the gymnast able to adapt to the new Code? This is important especially now with the new Code. Did the gymnast just watch everyone else upgrade while they performed the same routine?
  • Is this gymnast consistent? 


Unfortunately, I don't have time to crunch all the data, but if I were to look into this further, that's where I'd start.

So what? Why does any of this matter?


Believe it or not, I care about these numbers, and it's not because I, like most gym nerds, enjoy making predictions. It's because all roads lead back to Bruno Grandi

In case you don't have a Google alert for "Bruno Grandi" like I do, let me fill you in on Grandi's latest idea. According to a recent interview, he wants to begin the qualification process for the Olympics during the post-Olympic year.

Now, I don't know exactly what he has envisioned for the post-Olympic year, but the idea seems a bit ludicrous. I mean, how can you begin a qualification process THREE years before the Olympic Games? Is there any other sport that does that?

More importantly, from a statistical plan, this just seems inane. To review, typically,

  • 2 WAG gymnasts from the POW win medals at the next Olympics.
  • 3 MAG gymnasts from the POW win medals at the next Olympics.

Don't get me wrong. That number's better than 0, but at the same time, it's not like the POW medalists are consistently hoarding the medals at the Olympics. So, can someone explain to me why it's a good idea to use the post-Olympic year as a way to qualify for the Olympics?

Only in Bruno Grandi's mind does that seem to make sense.



Related Links:

MAG: Will 2013 be the Year of the Unicorn?
WAG: Understanding the Post-Olympic Letdown

3 comments:

  1. Grandi's idea can't work, unless later results are somehow given more weight than earlier ones.

    Otherwise, an athlete who does next to nothing in the two years prior to the Olympics but managed to pile up a bunch of credits or whatever at the beginning of the quad could qualify over someone who didn't his his or her stride until the year before the Games.

    Some of the problems Grandi is trying to fix are inherent in the Olympic system - the event only happens every four years and not everyone who should be there will be there because they had the bad luck to born in the "wrong" place.

    He should stop trying. The people who watch gymnastics every four years won't know the difference anyway and the people who really care about the sport know who's who.

    If he wants to grow the sport, he should realize the Olympics are not the only thing that matters.

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