By David Fong
February 15, 2014
SOCHI, Russia (AP) — When U.S. Speedskating hooked up with Under Armour to develop a new high-tech speed skinsuit that would revolutionize the sport at the Sochi Olympics, the vision was gold, silver and bronze.
The result was a total debacle.
Midway through a Winter Games that so far had been a bust for the American skaters, everyone is switching back to the suit they wore during the World Cup season and at the U.S. Olympic trials in late December.
The embarrassing change of course can be traced to a process filled with secrecy and questionable decisions — all of which came back to bite the U.S. program on the sport’s biggest stage.
“There are still some concerns,” U.S. coach Matt Kooreman said Saturday morning after a training session, while Under Armour was still hurriedly trying to modify the old suits so they would comply with International Olympic Committee regulations on sponsorship logos. “We are basically figuring out what our best options are.”
How did it come to this?
Kevin Haley, senior vice president of innovation for Under Armour, laid out a timeline for The Associated Press that was largely conducted behind closed doors. The company worked with Lockheed Martin to handle some of the testing, a partnership that added a bit of intrigue to the process. The aerospace and defense giant analyzed the suits using a process in which sensors are attached to the body, generating what Haley called “an unbelievable amount of data.” From there, Under Armour began wind-testing variations of the new suit using six different-sized mannequins.
Understandably, the athletes were excited to see what would come of so many bright minds trying to make them a suit that would provide less resistance, enabling them to go faster than ever.
“These people make F-16 jets,” skater Patrick Meek said.
According to Haley, Under Armour’s deal with U.S. Speedskating called for three suits to be delivered to each Olympic skater on Jan. 1, which is where things started to go wrong.
The skaters were involved in the development all through the process: trying on the suit, using it in training, offering suggestions and feedback. But secrecy seemed to be the primary concern, the U.S. fretting that other countries would swipe their technology if the suit came out too soon. The final version was completed about six weeks before the opening ceremony, which meant no one had a chance to compete in it before the biggest races of their lives.
“It’s not like we opened a package and all of a sudden there was a new suit we had never seen before,” Meek said. “I think we were playing a game where we were trying to hide the technology. That’s not a bad thing. I think that’s a really smart thing.”
The Americans gambled that any unfamiliarity and kinks in the new suit would be overcome by the startling times it produced.
That turned out to be a losing bet.
Through the first six events at Adler Arena, no U.S. skater had finished higher than seventh. Among the big-name flops: two-time gold medalist Shani Davis and female stars Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe.
While Under Armour touted the “Mach 39” as the “fastest speedskating suit in the world” — and the skaters dutifully spouted the party line before the Olympics — there were doubts about the suit. Some complained about it being too tight and restricting their breathing. The man who designed the Dutch team’s new suits said he had already tried some elements in the American version and found they didn’t produce any noticeable improvement; in fact, he thought one feature might slow them down.
After the first four events in Sochi, it was clear within the team that something was wrong, even though the Americans weren’t necessarily expected to win a medal in any of those races.
For the men’s 1,000 on Wednesday, one U.S. skater — Haley wouldn’t say who — skated in a slightly different version of the new suit, essentially for testing purposes. There was no significant improvement in the time. Davis finished eighth, ending his bid to become the first male speedskater to win the same event three straight times.
On Thursday, when Richardson and Bowe competed in the women’s 1,000, more desperate measures were taken. A vent on the back of Richardson’s suit was covered up. Again, there was no significant improvement, as Richardson finished seventh and Bowe eighth in an event they had dominated through the World Cup season.
With no competition at the oval on Friday, the Americans decided enough was enough.
They received permission from the International Skating Union to go back to the Under Armour suit they used before the Mach 39.
It was a huge blow to U.S. Speedskating, maybe even worse for Under Armour after its grand claims.
“That’s marketing. People wanted to make their product stand out,” Kooreman said. “And when you don’t live up to that expectation, you get it thrown back at you pretty harshly.”
The debacle was complete.