The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday afternoon that multiple people associated with the U.S. speedskating have said a design flaw in the team’s Under Armour suits may have contributed to the team’s poor showing in Sochi.
According to three people familiar with the U.S. team, these suits—which were designed by apparel sponsor Under Armour and billed before the Games as a major advantage—have a design flaw that may be slowing the skaters down. These people said that vents on back of the suit, designed to allow heat to escape, are allowing air to enter the suit and create drag that keeps the skaters from staying in the “low” position they need to achieve maximum speed. One skater said team members felt they were fighting the suit to maintain correct form.
Several skaters, including 1,000 world-record holder Heather Richardson, sent their suits to an Under Armour seamstress Thursday to have the panel modified with an extra piece of rubber. Even after the alteration, Richardson finished seventh—more than a second slower than the winner. As of Thursday night, no American has finished better than seventh in any of the six events so far.
“I would like to think that it’s not the suit,” said two-time gold medalist Shani Davis, who finished eighth in the 1,000 despite dominating this season’s World Cup circuit. “I would never blame the suit. I’d much rather blame myself. I just wasn’t able to do it today, but other people were.”
Davis said he has another suit with him in Sochi, but wouldn’t be allowed to use it in competition because Olympic protocol requires all skaters from the same team to have the same uniform.
Kevin Haley, the senior vice president of innovation for Under Armour, told WSJ that his company has received nothing but positive feedback about the suits. But he added that if the suits were a problem for the athletes, “we’ll move heaven and earth to make them better.”
But after bolting to a lightning-quick start, the 31-year-old Davis lagged nearly fourth-tenths of a second off the pace after the first of two-and-a-half laps around the 400-meter oval. As hard as he battled to close the gap, Davis couldn’t summon the speed he needed.
Poised to become the first male speedskater to win the same event at three consecutive Olympics, Davis could do no better than eighth. With it, he joined a growing list of high profile U.S. gold medal favorites to miss the medal podium entirely at the Sochi Games.
Ironically, when Under Armour debuted the suits, many thought they might go the way of the full-body swimsuits and be banned from competition for being too fast.
Under Armour & Lockheed Martin team up to create an advanced speed skating suit. Will its design cause controversy? http://t.co/GpmCS1RHmW— ENGINEERINGcom (@ENGINEERINGcom) January 22, 2014
Given those features, the expertly engineered LZR was worn by 94% of all race winners during the 2008 Olympic games.
Within a year the suit was banned from competition.
In just a month we may see the same controversy rear its head again, as the Sochi Olympics feature another state-of-art performance textile built specifically for the US speed skating team.
Jointly developed by Under Armor and Lockheed Martin, the newest textile marvel, named the Mach 39, features friction reducing fabrics, a newly designed zipper and counter-intuitively bumpy surfaces. Tested for 300 hours in Lockheed Martin’s wind tunnels, the suit’s designers have been extremely secretive about their new high performance suit. While few details have been released, we do know the suit will feature a dimpled hood, forearms designed to perfectly disrupt airflow, and super slick fabrics on the upper thigh. In addition, the suit will feature a meshed back to cool the athlete’s body.
Given the secrecy and exclusivity of the Mach 39’s development, we feel confident its design will stir controversy at this year’s Olympic games, particularly if its performance mirrors that of the LZR Racer.