Curiouser and Curiouser

file photo

file photo

Late last night, I came across a piece of information which struck me as unusual. While perusing Frank Anderson’s blog on the progress of Australian long track speed skating (c’mon who doesn’t like reading about themselves?) I came across what was claimed to be the selectors’ decisions for race allocation for the upcoming world cup in Calgary. It struck me as unusual because it gave what I perceived to be a sub-optimal allocation. Not having touched my skates since Sunday (see previous post for the reason why) I had not had a chance to speak with coach Desly Hill (or any other skaters for that matter), who is at least in theory, part of the selection process. I felt sure that this was a simple mistake or miscommunication, yet early this morning an official group-email, sent through official lines arrived in my inbox confirming this curious selection decision.

Those avid and dedicated readers of this website will recall that this is not the first time I have called into question the selection process. The previous occasion concerned the differences of racing at different elevations – mainly that the difference was not being taken into account. To their credit, the selection committee revised their criteria to include a system for “weighting” times for different skating venues according to a mathematical formula based on the track records for the various rinks. Obviously this was not ideal (the ideal scenario would be to have all the skaters vying for selection skate a selection race at the same venue, preferably a venue at the same elevation as the event for which they are being selected) but considering that Australia is not wealthy enough a skating country to fly their skaters from place to place just for selection trials, this was a good solution. I was impressed at this move – it is a difficult thing to admit that you are wrong, and I was also made aware that some people were displeased with article on skating at altitude (because science makes many people unhappy, just look at climate change). It gave me the impression that, although they did not always have a comprehensive understanding of all the factors involved, the selectors were willing to admit their mistakes, and at the heart of it, were trying to do the right thing.

Which is why their most recent selection decision has been so baffling.

The only possible explanation I could come up with is that they used the aforementioned mathematical formula to calculate everybody’s fastest time. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this, but I happen to have a very intimate working knowledge of this formula because I was asked to calculate everybody’s times (because everybody knows that having an honors degree in mathematics makes you an expert at using excel…). Even using the formula, the selector’s decisions are inconsistent, but that is irrelevant to my point. Of course, anyone who has ever had a serious go of predicting the weather (btw, I have a masters degree in climate science) will know that, while mathematical equations are a very useful starting point, they are limited in their usefulness. Mine was one of the strongest cautionary voices on using the formula as the primary basis for selection because I of all people knew that it was a very crude and imperfect measure and should only be used as a last resort, in the cases where all skaters concerned were not able to face-off at the same venue. In the case of the first two world cups of the season, this was the case, and so the formula was being used appropriately, but now this is clearly not the case as we have all been in calgary for at least week and have had time to race each other.

The baffling thing then, is why the formula is being adhered to. Last weekend, while I was busy not qualifying for the world cup, every Australian skater who was being considered for selection (all five of us) skated in the weekend time trials in Calgary. We all understood what was at stake, and we all believed that the selectors would use the results from those races as the primary basis for their decision. You could not construct a more perfect selection race if you tried – the venue is the same as for the world cup, the conditions were the same for everyone, and the competition took place one week prior to the world cup. I am not aware of better indicator for performance at the upcoming world cup than last weekend’s races. I have linked the results as well as the team announcement below:

The Calgary World Cup Team

Results (mens) from last weekend’s races

(Note: I didn’t link the women’s results because, as we only have one female skater, the decision is as easy as \pi)

As can be clearly seen, everyone was on form, with personal bests being lowered in all distances skated. There are two very obvious anomalies in the selection – the men’s 500m and 1500m.

In world cups, there are two lots of 500m whereas there is only one instance of every other distance. This is because, in long track, there are two lanes and skaters swap lanes in the back straight. In a distance as short as 500m, the race is significantly different depending on which lane you start in, so each skater is given one run in each. It is highly unusual to start a different skater in each of the 500s. In any case, Daniel Greig should get both because, as can be seen quite clearly in these results, he went faster than Ben Southee’s best time on both days, once starting on the inner, and once starting on the outer.

why is the national record holder, who set the national record one week before the world cup, on the same ice as the world cup, who skated against and soundly defeated all other Australian skaters vying for a spot in the world cup, not the first choice for the world cup?

The 1500m decision is even more baffling, and I have very little to say on this other than – why is the national record holder, who set the national record one week before the world cup, on the same ice as the world cup, who skated against and soundly defeated all other Australian skaters vying for a spot in the world cup, not the first choice for the world cup?

There have been various arguments floating around about “sharing races around” and other such nonsense. This is not weekend club racing, this is the world cup. These world cups will decide Olympic selection. It is imperative that the fastest skaters, and only the fastest skaters race them. The results matter. Another good reason for the fastest skater to race is because faster skaters are more likely to place higher in the rankings (forgive me for stating the obvious, but that seems to be the order of the day whenever I find myself disagreeing with selectors). Placing higher in the rankings gives us an increased chance of gaining another spot for Australia in the next world cup – which benefits everybody.

I can forgive selectors for missing the point about the differences of skating at different altitudes. It is a fact that is only commonly known to people familiar with long track speed skating (the selector’s backgrounds are mostly from short track) and people who have a passing acquaintance with the physics of fluid dynamics. Moreover, they have shown their integrity by revising their selection criteria to accommodate that new knowledge – for this I applaud them. What they must do now is revise their selection for the Calgary world cup team and make the decisions that everybody knows are obvious. To do otherwise would be to commit a grave injustice and endanger the future of our sport.

12 Comments on Curiouser and Curiouser

  1. Hi Daniel,

    Another interesting viewpoint which I won’t get too wrapped up about, but I will clarify a quick point about the LT experience of one of the selection panel.

    (the selector’s backgrounds are mostly from short track) – Danny Kah is a very experienced long tracker who has competed in three Olympics and finished top 10 at the Calgary Olympics ’88 in the 5k. He is a veteran of over 40 odd intenational events, has podiumed at a world cup, finished 4th in the 5k at a world allround championship, and also been an Australian ST champion gods knows how many times!

    I think Danny is highly credentialed to make an informed decision about long track and to think that he is not still in contact with the international long track community would be a misjudged error. Also, there are other well known former Australian athletes that are still heavily involved that no doubt provide regular feedback to members and selectors of the AIR board.

    Australia actually has many aclaimed long track speedskaters and Australia (speed skating) has competed in the Winter Olympics since 1936. This was part of the reason for commecning my blog, as there was no such site to show the history of this sport and Australia’s involvement and I wanted to showcase the efforts of Josh, Daniel, Sophie and yourself (and Desly) at the time. I am unbiased and I can’t wait to see all four Aussies compete in Vancouver – hopefully.

    In regards to the time weighting/adjustment issue, I know we discussed this at Thialf, but the simple fact is that the selection of skaters is not optimal. However, the AIR did accept change and I can only guess in this instance that they took the adjustment of Ben’s Berlin 1500m and his Heerenveen 500m in comparison to Calgary and selected him. I am also aware that Ben was still suffering the effects of a chest infection last weekend. Josh broke Ben’s record by .2 of a second, and ben was .13 behind him on the 2nd 1500m. so the gap was not convincing per say. Calgary was not a selection, although it probably could have been declared if it had been requested earlier, and no skater was under any obligation to skate to protect their time ranking.

    I would never take anything away from Josh at all, as he is an amazing athlete, and a top bloke to boot. And although I have no input at all into selection, my theory is purely hypothetical as I have not spoken to any board members since I left for Berlin a month ago!

    However, as I suggest to my staff and students, no organisation is exempt from change, I do not accept that – you may recall the gorilla story? It is all in the delivery of how you present the proposed changes, and I don’t think public airing of laundry is ever the best way. I have implemented change into two law enforcement agencies that are renowned for bucking change, so i can speak from experience should anyone care.

    I admire all of the athletes, yourself included, for the effort you have invested to put Australian speed skating back on the map after a few years hiatus. I am really excited to see what Desly and Rogina do with the program over the coming years, and hopefully the selection process will become more simplified and less controversial.

    Please give my best to all the skaters for this weekend, and I would love for you to email some photos for the blog.

    And as I always say, if we aren’t discussing speed skating, there will be no speed skating


    • Ok Frank,

      firstly, I am well aware of the history of Australian long track and the very impressive credentials of folks like Danny Kah. In fact, this knowledge is what makes this selection decision all the more baffling. It is also my understanding that we have only ever heard from one of the selectors (not Danny) and there has been no consultation whatsoever with the coach (that is actually written in the selection policy so the issue of whether or not we are following our own official selection policy is questionable).

      Don’t get me wrong, I think Ben’s a good kid. I’m not saying all this because I’m bitter about this-or-that, or I favour so-and-so. I’m saying all this because if I were an outsider observing all this happen, I would be extremely puzzled at the decision. If I were a potential skater, I would think twice about taking up the sport, and if I were a potential sponsor, I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. These are important things to think about.

      Ben may have been recovering from a chest infection – so what? Maybe he shouldn’t be racing the world cup with a chest infection. Josh was also recovering from jet-lag and getting used to the altitude while Ben had been in Calgary for a full week longer – whatever. I’m still improving by whole seconds every time I race – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we put up the person who is most likely to deliver the best performance on the day of the race – that is the WHOLE POINT of selection. I am certain that anybody who scrutinizes the available data would come to the same conclusion as I have above.

      I should also probably make the point that 0.2 of a second is actually a considerable margin in a 1500m race. At Hamar: Bøkko, Hedrick, Fabris, Tuitert, and Skobrev were within 0.2 of each other over 1500m. That’s five places at the pointy end of A division. To say that a 0.2 gap is not convincing is a bit of a stretch mate…

      I do agree with you that this may not be the best forum for discussing these issues. However, all the information presented is publicly available and able to be discussed by anyone. The only “inside” information I guess, is the stuff about the weighted times which I introduced as a possible justification for the unusual decision. (This is also not a very public forum – not very many people read this website, the view count for this article is 88 as of my writing this comment)

      I may not be very old, but I also have extensive experience with bringing change to organizations who are resistant to it. There are many situations in which open letters and public actions are the most effective ways of bringing about change, particularly when internal discussions aren’t bearing any fruit. This is also mostly a volunteer organization, where open information is one of the only tools of accountability available, and we must use it. If I know Desly, she would be furiously sending emails to the selectors and fighting nail and tooth for the right decision to be made and, as far as I am aware, no progress has been made.

      The key here is urgency. The Calgary world cup begins tomorrow, and Salt Lake City is only a week away. I don’t know if you’re aware of the ISU rules, but these next two races will decide whether or not Australia gets an spot in 1500m in the Olympic Games. We still might not. If we’re not putting our fastest (and healthiest?) guy forward, we might not get a spot at all. We must leave nothing to chance.

      You said it yourself, the selectors threw out the 2008-2009 times because they wanted to emphasize recency. Now they’re using a crude and imperfect mathematical system to calculate a time based on a race that happened a month ago. All this, when the most perfect, controlled, and recent comparison took place just last weekend? It is ludicrous!

  2. Daniel,

    Once again, all sound arguments, but I will ask you a question: Based on how the current selection policy is written, has the correct person been selected for the 1500m this weekend? If so, and you don’t believe that this is the best selection, then as a member of the AIR, I appeal to you to come up with a better solution and have it implemented. Doing things retrospectively is never the best way, and regardless of who is/was selected, I would be very disappointed if the AIR reveresed their decision at such late notice, as I believe they have applied their policy and it could be seen as thought the AIR can be easily manipulated. Maybe a decision could be altered for Salt Lake???

    I have no doubt Desly would be doing as you said, she is a passionate person and as she says, “I hate being told I can’t!”

    The idea of selecting the team just days out from the world cup was always fraught with danger anyway, and once again these are the issues that arise – when skaters should be preparing for a major event, they are in the background whilst ‘mum and dad’ are disputing decisions.

    I don’t miss any of your points – but the simple fact was no skater had to skate last weekend, it was not a selection trial. Had Desly requested that happen, and the AIR approved, then the results would have been taken as first across the line skates, but once again there was no obligation.

    Also, I beleive that if if last season track bests were taken into consideration as opposed to track records, the time weighting may have been more in favour of Josh in the 1500m (I haven’t done the calculations so I am happy to stand corrected on this)but it would appear that any statement or idea opposed to certain people always seems to be considered ‘foolish’! My idea is that recency is compared to recency.

    As you say, every time you skate, you improve by seconds and that is awesome and I hope it continues – we need about another 20 Daniel Yeows to push everyone up and make competition. Many ‘beginner’ or transitional skaters do this, as when there is a lot to improve, then big gains should be expected. I myself have had a grand total of around 5 weeks in my life on LT and the last time I skated a 1500m I skated a 2:06, but so what? That was 6 seconds off my previous best but counts for nothing, I am a young 37 years and fun is the name of MY game. As you know, time drops will lessen as you progress and become technically better. I am a realist, and I know my limitations, and that is to support all the Aussie skaters, and I mean ALL.

    And you are correct, .2 of a second is a lot and it only takes .01 of a second to lose a gold medal. But once again, I am guessing the AIR applied all of the selection policy and shared the 500m as well – who knows, they are the only ones that can say.

    I would like to think that everyone will support whoever gets to skate and hope that we qualify skaters for Vancouver.

    Whether I agree or disagree with who was selected is not the point here, but whether in this instance the policy has been applied? Like laws that are bad, usually someone needs to be aggreived before people realise that the law is wrong, and I suggest this is the case here also.

    Only through guys like yourself who are passionate and attached to the sport can we further we grow it, so keep up the discussion. I only play devil’s advocate in most instances, and like I have said, I just want to see the best from our country skate too.

    Have a good weekend at the WC

    • Well Frank,

      the answer to your question is simply – no. Based on all the information available to the selectors by their selection deadline, there is not a single sound argument for Ben being selected over Josh.

      I’m going to put this very bluntly – I don’t give a fuck what the “best” way is to do this is. There is only one “right” thing to do, and that is for Josh to skate the 1500m at the Calgary world cup.

      It is not up to us to find the “best” way of doing something. We forgo that luxury when a very obvious “best” team selection was ignored by a very indifferent selection committee.

      I completely understand your point about AIR not wanting to reverse its decision because it would give the impression that they are easily manipulated. Of course, one should also weigh that against the impression that people might get if AIR makes a bad decision with bad consequences. What would you rather? A world where bad decisions are made, but stuck to by inflexible bureaucrats in order to save face, or a world where bad decisions are made, but subject to revision because the people in whom we place our trust have an overriding desire to do the right thing?

      Late notice is also not without precedent. I know of at least one case in which a skater from the US team was informed that she would be able to race less than 48 hours prior to that race.

      It’s just another case of iSnack 2.0. It was a mistake. It quickly became very obvious that it was a mistake. So they changed it. There really is no reason why that couldn’t be done here.

      On the point of procedure, I have good reason to believe that it is not being followed. In fact, the selection policy states that the coach must be consulted in selection decisions and I have confirmed that she was not. From what I have heard (and I admittedly have not heard much) the selectors have barely communicated with us at all, and when they have, they have blatantly ignored anything we have had to say. I also have reason to believe that they are incapable of competently carrying out the required mathematical calculations to arrive at the correct weighted times. None of these are mortal sins – they can be corrected if the possibility for correction exists.

      In fact, I would like to go on the record as saying that our selectors have been deliberately negligent and are, in any case, totally incompetent. I understand that saying such things may very well jeopardize my chances of ever representing Australia in this sport ever again, but justice is justice. The slightest shred of evidence of the intention to do the right thing may have restored my faith in them, as it did following the whole altitude vs sea-level debacle, but this is truly ludicrous.

      Tomorrow, the fastest Australian EVER over 1500m will watch someone else take the starting line. Someone who they have beaten soundly in every instance where they have raced on the same day in the same venue. Someone who they have comprehensively outranked in the 1500m at world cups. I don’t doubt that Ben is an excellent skater, but Josh is a better one. Being able to judge who is a better skater is an enormously difficult task, but the opportunities have presented themselves, and the results are in. And they were ignored.

      If the selectors truly want such a bad decision next to their names then I am disgusted. I have done extensive work with human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and have been routinely disgusted by the injustices of the world. These injustices were motivated by very powerful factors – obscene amounts of money and power. Here we have a chance to correct a small injustice, and we are arguing about saving face!?

      If the roles were reversed, I would argue for Ben’s case just as vigorously. I will not sit quietly by while all this happens (that much should be obvious by now). I will not have that on my conscience any more than you would walk past a woman being stabbed on the street without rendering assistance. We have very short and unpredictable lives. How great a disservice would we commit to future generations if we ever let our pride stand in the way of doing the right thing? What kind of precedent is that? It is not the world I want to live in, and I do want a bar of it.

      • Hi,

        Would you mind sharing with us the forumula of rink times conversion?


        • The calculations are long and convoluted and best done on a spreadsheet, but the basic principle is as follows:

          Say for the men’s 500m… you get all the track records for the different venues for the 500m. The world record is 34.03, set at Utah Olympic Oval by Jeremy Wotherspoon. You take all the other track records and subtract the world record from it. So, for example the record at Thialf is 34.81 (also by Jeremy) so the difference is 0.78, which is about 2.29% of the world record. You construct a table of percentages for all distances for all the venues that you’re interested in.

          So if I have a time in Salt Lake City, I would multiply it by 1.0229 to get an estimate of what time I would get in Heerenveen. To go the other way, I would divide my Heerenveen time by 1.0229 to get my Salt Lake time. It becomes messy because you have to do a whole new set of calculations for each distance, and for each pair of venues.

          There’s nothing particularly deep about this method. It’s just a bit messy and someone who’s competent at mathematics has to do the calculations because it is easy to make a mistake because there are so many steps.

  3. Time Trials, Calgary – Nov 28 2009 – Joshua Lose AUS 1.48,59 NR PR SB

    World Cup, Calgary – Dec 04 2009 – Ben SOUTHEE AUS 1:48.24

    • I know, I was there.

      The air pressure was lower, and the ice conditions were fast, as can be expected for a world cup. All credit to Ben for breaking the national record again, but if you look at his placing, he’s 45th while Josh placed 39th or 40th at Hamar. Placing within the top 40 at a world cup is an Australian requirement for the Olympic nomination.

      There are basically two criteria for getting to the Olympics. First, you have to skate within the top 40 at a world cup. Second, you have to skate an Olympic qualifying time at an ISU event (typically, a world cup). The difficulty of obtaining the ranking doesn’t vary a lot between world cups, since mostly the same people go. Obtaining the time requirement varies according to the air pressure and, as discussed in a previous post, the air pressure decreases with higher altitude. Since Ben has had three attempts at the ranking and succeeded zero times, and Josh has made one from one, perhaps he should be allowed to have a shot at the 1500m at the Salt Lake City world cup?

      You see, I believe that if Josh had raced the 1500m earlier today, he would have gone faster. We’ll never know now. But the way things are going, there is a good chance that Australia won’t get a spot in the 1500m at the Olympics. The reason the top 40 ranking criteria exists is because, even if you can skate an Olympic qualifying time, you still need to skate within the top 40 times in the world (only counting the top 4 from large countries like Canada and the Netherlands because of country maximum quotas) in order to get one of the 40 spots that exists.

      Josh needs his chance to skate a top 40 ranking on fast world cup ice, at a high altitude. He may not make it, but I honestly believe he has a slightly better chance than Ben does.

  4. C’mon mate,

    Ben skated 45th of 59 skaters, Josh was 40th of 42 skaters! You are the mathematician, tell me which one finished higher, percentage wise? The simple fact is, like you say, we just won’t know what Josh could’ve done, and to be honest, that perplexes me too as I want to see as many Aussies at the Olympics when I sit at home and cheer like mad for them! Josh is indeed a quality skater, but to say you ‘believe’ Josh is a better skater, is pure belief and your opinion, of course which you are entitled to. I simply can’t say who is better, and i won’t, even with ben breaking the record. But I will always support whoever gets to skate. I think they are both on an equal footing to be totally honest, and who knows what either one can do in their ‘perfect’ race.

    BTW, the top 20 Olympic rankings are based on WC points ranking in each distance, the bottom 20 are based on time in world cups, not placings in any particular world cup. Ben currently (before this weekend) sits as sixth reserve, and with many skaters who were above him missing this weekend, Ben may well move into one of the 40 placings, but I won’t try and calculate this. Now, I will stand corrected on this one, but it is my belief that a country quota allocation can nominate that a country is given a position at the Olympics, and as long as an athlete has posted an OQT, then that member country can decided who fills that position, but once again, I will be prepared to be corrected on this.

    Let’s start to promote team harmony, as to be honest, I would love to see the guys team up for the team pursuit, as I actually reckon we would stand half a chance in this discipline given the depth we have at the moment.

    • Frankie…

      I know exactly how the ISU rules work in regards to the Olympics, at least as far as they are written. I have been told that it is common for the ISU to encourage smaller countries by giving them a spot, but this is outside the “official” written rule on how Olympic spots are determined. Let’s hope that they do this for Australia.

      When talking about rankings, one does not ordinarily calculate the percentage. Regardless of how useful it is as a measure of a person’s skating ability, in this case, the only thing that matters is how many people finished in front of a particular skater. (and Ben was supposed to skate in Hamar anyway). The top-40 rule is actually an Australian one, so who knows whether it will be adhered to. The 1500m is extremely competitive this year, with national records dropping like flies. To be perfectly honest, I am doubtful that either Ben or Josh can make it into the games based on times alone (Ben is 2nd or 3rd reserve at the moment… I think). Ben, however, has skated an OQT at an ISU event, while Josh has not since he hasn’t had a world cup on fast ice yet. I don’t feel it is fair to shut the door on him when it is this close.

      I’m not so sure we’d be competitive in a team pursuit. Little Dan is very quick, but is also very much a “pure sprinter”. I’m not nearly quick enough yet. (is Richard Goerlitz any good at distance?). But I agree that, with backgrounds in short track and inline (i.e. not being afraid of skating in a pack) there is a lot of potential for a good team pursuit – look what the Dutch “B-team” did in Heerenveen.

      I’m all for team harmony. I wished Ben luck prior to his race, and took a few good photos of him. I just have a HUGE problem with the selectors who, aside from making what I believe to be very bad decisions, give me the impression of indifference and ignorance. There’s a wider issue here aside from who’s faster than who. Finding out who’s faster is a very difficult thing to do in this case, but trying to determine who selectors will pick shouldn’t feel like rolling dice.

  5. Hi Daniel
    In our area of the states we receive many cyclonic lows and also significant barometric highs. What difference do you believe could be achieved in short track times by skating at times of low air pressure over say 500m and 1,500m?

    • the normal variation of air pressure is enough to make a significant difference to the “feel” of a race. However, the difference is small compared to the difference that high altitude makes. Also, in short track, other variables probably have a much greater influence on times.

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