February 16, 2006


Updated Predictions

Canadian medal prediction, 2006 -- Updated 16 February

Figure 1 — Probability distribution for Canada's 2006 winter Olympic medal total (updated).

I am only really writing this blog post so that I can display my latest prediction for Canada's medal total (inset right). Note that I am not changing my original prediction; I'm just updating the probabilities for events where the medals have already been decided. That changes the probability distribution every day.

In case you are wondering, no, I am not obsessed with the medal table, or with Canadian performances. After all, the Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries. (If it's in the rules, it must be true.) No, I am actually obsessed with my own predictions, which is a different personality problem entirely.

As long as I'm using up valuable time when I could be sleeping, I should have pointed out yesterday that US speed skater Chad Hedrick will definitely not win five gold medals in Turin, since the Americans were eliminated in the quarterfinals of the men's team pursuit. To be charitable I will point out that they were beaten by the eventual gold medallists.

The US did not have their best skaters available, which is a matter of some controversy. That's not what I want to talk about here. I am more interested in the ease with which everybody seems to have swallowed the five-medal hype in the first place. Is it really possible for a speed skater to win five gold medals at the Olympics any more? And if it is, doesn't that show that the depth of the field is pretty poor?

Hedrick is still predicting that he will win the 1,000, 1,500, 5,000, and 10,000 m events at the Olympics. He has already won the 5,000, actually, so only three more to go. But that sweep looks humanly impossible to me. The 1,000 m race will be won with a time of about 70 seconds. The 10,000 m race will take Hedrick in the ballpark of 13 minutes. To compare that to running, it equates roughly to the 800 m (or a 600 m, if that was an event) and the 5,000 m. In swimming, it would be about the same as pairing the 200 m (or 150 m) and 1,500 m.

But in swimming and running, those doubles simply cannot be done. Evenly the freakishly gifted Ian Thorpe has never done it at the world championships or Olympics. Sure, he's won at 200, 400, and 800; but extending or contracting that distance requires completely different (and mutually competing) physiological systems. In running, forget about it; nobody even enters the 800 and the 5,000. I feel pretty safe in saying that in this modern age of highly specialized athletes, It Cannot Be Done. Nobody is ever going to be world or Olympic swimming champion in the 200 m and 1,500 m simultaneously. Nobody is ever going to be world or Olympic athletics champion in the 800 m and 5,000 m simultaneously. And nobody is going to be world or Olympic speed skating champion in the 1,000 m and 10,000 m simultaneously, either. The fact that Hedrick is even competitive in both distances makes him almost superhuman.

And yes, I know that Eric Heiden did it. In fact, Heiden's five-gold feat was even more astounding than the one Hedrick was shooting for, since he won the 500 m instead of the team pursuit. But that was twenty-six years ago! Speed skaters still raced outside! Human physiology hasn't changed, but the level of competition has. I think. The fact that people seriously entertain the idea that Hedrick can do this gives me pause. Maybe he really can do it. But if he does, it will just show me that the world's speed skating talent pool is actually pretty shallow.

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