SOCHI, Russia - Halfway through the women's bobsled competition in Sochi, United States 1 leads Canada 1 by 0.23 seconds and third-place United States 2 by 0.56 seconds. With two of the four heats remaining and just a half-second separating three teams, the gold medal seems like it would be up for grabs. Not so fast, my friends.
A fascinating article in Slate suggests that because bobsled results tend to be highly predictable, USA 1 might as well receive their gold medals now. As Ben Blatt discovered, time variations in bobsled runs are so minuscule that the team winning after the second heat has gone on to win 85 percent of Olympic or World Cup competitions since 2006. The gold at each Olympic race in 2010 was already sewn up at the halfway point.
Remarkably, in more 70% of races, the entire podium is locked at the halfway point. That's what happened in the men's two-man competition earlier this week, when Russia 1, Switzerland 1 and United States 1 went wire-to-wire in first, second and third.
Things get even more predictable after the third heat. The leader after three has never lost a gold in the fourth. Thus, Slate says:
"The fourth run of an international bobsled competition, then, is the most meaningless event in all of sports-or at least tied for first in the meaninglessness rankings with every preseason NFL game."
There's still a chance USA 1 could get knocked off or that Belgium 1 could pass United States 2 for the bronze, of course. 85% isn't 100% and sports are always unpredictable. It's just that bobsled competitions tends to have less unpredictability than most. A lot less.
(That whole Slate piece is highly recommended for any fan of sports, statistics and/or the Olympics.)