SOCHI, Russia — Expectations abounded for the U.S. speedskating team entering the Sochi Olympics. The squad that had won four medals at the 2010 Vancouver Games was being led into Russia by four-time Olympic medalist Shani Davis, world record holder in the 1,000 and 1,500 meters.
Best of all, it was armed with a secret weapon developed amid Cold War-caliber intrigue: the “Mach 39,” a revolutionary skinsuit that its maker, Baltimore-based Under Armour, trumpeted as “the fastest speedskating suit in the world.”
So when Davis, the prohibitive favorite to win a third consecutive gold in the 1,000 meters, ended up eighth instead, and none of his peers got within sniffing distance of a medal podium through the first six events, the second-guessing began, reaching a dramatic, if futile, crescendo Saturday.
Had the Americans trained hard enough? Had they overlooked something the medal-gorging Dutch had figured out? And what about the Mach 39, devised in collaboration with aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, no less? What had happened to the propulsive blast it promised to deliver?
Reporters wanted to know. And some U.S. speedskaters started having doubts.
Delivered by Under Armour to the team on Jan. 1, as contracted, the Mach 39 had never been worn in competition before the Sochi Games. So how could the U.S. skaters know for sure that the air vents down the spine translated to speed? Where was the experiential proof that the relocated zippers and high-tech fibers helped their performance more than hurt it?
“The reasoning behind that was we wanted to keep the suit a secret in case other people found out about it, and they had enough time to switch their technology,” explained U.S. speedskater Brian Hansen, 23, of Evanston, Ill., asked why the athletes hadn’t competed in the suit before Sochi, given prototypes to train in instead.
But almost overnight, the U.S. speedskaters’ Olympic-sized flameout touched off a maelstrom of bad publicity for Under Armour and ill-timed distractions for the athletes, who were summoned to a meeting Friday night to vote on whether to abandon the high-tech suits midway through the Games and go back to using an older model Under Armour they’d used in World Cup races.
It was unanimous among the four men scheduled to compete in Saturday’s 1,500 meters: Ground the Mach 39 and put their faith in the suit they knew best. But the result was simply more mediocrity, with Hansen finishing seventh and Davis, in his last chance to win an individual medal in Sochi, 11th.
The upshot left the skaters as muddled as before about whether Under Armour’s Mach 39 had been an asset or liability.
To Hansen, the only certainty was the U.S. skaters were under-performing.
Said Davis: “I think in any scenario you want to try something out before you try it out on one of the bigger stages of your life. I’d much rather try it out, if I had the option, way before the Olympics. The Olympics happens once every four years.”
Winter speed demons (and curlers, too)
Unlike most perennial Olympic powers, the U.S. Olympic Committee gets no public funds. Corporate money and private donations are the lifeblood of its teams, bankrolling much of the athletes’ training and expenses.
For the most part, it’s a win-win proposition, with U.S. Olympic teams getting sorely needed help with operating expenses, while corporate backers make popular patriotic statements through their largesse and bask in the reflected glory of the Olympic triumphs.
But when corporate sponsors take a more active role — not just funding Olympic teams but taking the lead in developing their gear, such as Under Armour did with the U.S. speedskating suits and BMW has done in redesigning the two-man U.S. bobsled — they take on an element of risk, linking their brand to results they can’t control.
Matt Powell, a retail analyst with SportsOneSource who follows Under Armour, suggested that the company dodged a bullet, in effect, when the U.S. speedskaters switched to the old suits for Saturday’s 1,5000 meters and still did poorly.
“I think had they switched and won medals, it probably would’ve been an embarrassment for Under Armour,” Powell said. “But it’s not really clear the uniforms are the problem. I don’t think people will really remember this long term. . . . The fact that they put on suits that they’d won in before sort of argues that it’s not the suit’s fault.”
Under Armour was founded by former Maryland football player Kevin Plank, who launched the business in 1996 out of the basement of his grandmother’s Georgetown home.
Plank’s initial breakthrough was creating a compression shirt that stayed dry through withering practices, and he turned to former teammates to spread the word. From that core product and an edgy marketing campaign, Under Armour has flourished in the hyper-competitive retail space of high-performance gear, proving a plucky challenger to behemoths such as Nike and Adidas.
Just last month Under Armour added Notre Dame to its portfolio of college clients, which includes Maryland, as well as Auburn, Texas Tech and others. With an eye toward making inroads in Asia, South America and Europe, the company recently opened officers in China, Japan, Mexico, Brazil and Chile. To that end, it has extended its product lines beyond traditional stick-and-ball sports.
Are the Winter Olympics for the rich?
The Olympics provide the ideal platform for that global, multicultural strategy.
Powell, the retail analyst, said that the benefits are two-fold: It gets Under Armour’s logo on television, and it proves that Under Armour can make gear for the highest-performing athletes in the world, an image that’s at the core of the firm’s brand.
Under Armour signed its four-year sponsorship deal with U.S. Speedskating in 2011; the company also outfits the U.S. bobsled and skeleton teams, as well as Canada’s snowboarders.
According to Kevin Haley, Under Armour’s director of innovation, the company made three different suits for the U.S. speedskaters.
Once the athletes decided to abandon the new suits, the company scrambled to remove the larger corporate logos from the black-and-blue World Cup suits to comply with Olympic rules.
“Look, we don’t pretend that it’s our job to decide anything about the skaters or how or what they should wear when they are out there,” Haley said. “Our job is to give them options that allow them to reach the podium: fast suits capable of putting them on the podium. If it gives someone the tiniest advantage because they don’t have any shred of doubt what’s on their back, and it gives them confidence when they step on ice, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Dutch speedskating coach Jillert Anema, whose athletes have dominated Sochi’s long track events, told reporters Saturday that his country’s skaters complained about their suits back in 2006, at the European all-around championships. While the specific gripe proved trivial, Anema said, the greater concern was that the skaters lost confidence in the suits.
“If you have doubts, then you will not skate well,” Anema said. “It’s like throwing a dart. If you don’t feel good, you will miss the bull’s-eye.”
In the case of Davis, 31, he simply never felt confident after getting off to such a poor start in his signature event.
“I tried the best I can, and I don’t have the hardware to show it,” said Davis, who currently leads the World Cup standings in the 1,000 and 1,500 meters. “I thought I was on the right path, some forks in road, detours, backtracking.
“At the end of the day, the paper says I’m 11th; the paper says I’m eighth. It doesn’t say ‘because of suit’ or ‘because of lack of confidence’ or whatever. It just says eighth and 11th, so that’s what I have to live with for the rest of my life: knowing that I had the potential, I had the talent, I did the work, made the sacrifices. But I couldn’t quite get what I needed to get out of those things in Sochi.”
Sally Jenkins and Rick Maese contributed from Russia; Jia Lynn Yang contributed from Washington.