SOCHI, Russia—In the hours after gold-medal favorite Shani Davis finished nowhere near the podium, the U.S. speedskating team pored over data through the early morning Thursday, questioning everything from race strategy to skate blades.
After an equally disastrous outcome in the women’s 1,000-meter race later on Thursday, a suspect emerged: the high-tech racing suits the team adopted for the Winter Olympics.
After a disastrous outcome for heavily favored U.S. men and women speedskaters, a suspect has emerged: the high-tech Under Armour racing suits the team adopted for the Winter Olympics.
These suits—designed by apparel sponsor Under Armour and billed before the Games as a competitive advantage—have a design flaw that may be slowing down skaters, according to three people familiar with the U.S. team.
Vents on back of the suit, designed to allow heat to escape, are also allowing air to enter and create drag that keeps skaters from staying in the low position they need to achieve maximum speed, these people said. One skater said team members felt they were fighting the suit to maintain correct form.
Kevin Haley, the senior vice president of innovation for Under Armour, which has sponsored the U.S. team since 2011, said he was confident the suits were fast, but, in the absence of medal-winning performances, “we’ll move heaven and earth to make them better.”
Several skaters, including Heather Richardson, ranked No. 1 in the 1,000 meters, sent their suits to an Under Armour seamstress Thursday to have the panel modified with an extra piece of rubber. After the alteration, Ms. Richardson finished seventh—more than a second slower than the winner.
As of Thursday night, no American has finished better than seventh place in any of the six long-track speedskating events held so far. Another six long-track events remain. In the 2010 Vancouver Games, the U.S. won four medals in speedskating.
“I would like to think that it’s not the suit,” said Mr. Davis, a two-time gold medalist, who finished eighth in the 1,000 meter 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.”
Bert van der Tuuk, the designer of the Dutch Olympic team’s suits, said Thursday he had tried a similar ventilation panel on the back of a prototype three years ago, but it slowed his skaters by letting in air and creating drag. “The suit was blowing itself up,” he said.
There were other possibilities. The U.S. team trained at higher altitudes on an outdoor track in Collalbo, Italy, with ice conditions different from the track in Sochi. Plus, said Brittany Bowe, the world-record holder in the 1,000 meters who finished eighth behind Ms. Richardson, “other countries are just getting really fast.”
Ted Morris, the executive director of USA Speedskating, said, “The evidence does not suggest that the suits have contributed to the disappointing results so far…We’re working with our athletes, coaches, trainers and Under Armour to figure out what we can do to produce better results for Team USA.”
Matt Powell, an industry analyst for SportsOneSource, said the benefit of Under Armour’s sponsorship of the U.S. speedskating team at the Games is global exposure and product credibility. The $11.5 billion Baltimore-based sportswear maker went public in 2005 and derives its core business from sales of performance apparel, rather than from sports footwear like Nike Inc. and Adidas AG.
Under Armour developed the skintight aerodynamic suit for the Sochi Games and it was pretested for specific conditions, including the sea-level altitude, that athletes would face there. The company billed the so-called Mach 39 outfit as “the fastest speedskating suit in the world.” The suits, made from five synthetic fabrics, went through 300 hours of wind-tunnel testing and incorporated the design expertise of Lockheed Martin’s aircraft engineers, the company said. Even the zippers were a special design.
The suits were delivered to the team in January, when preliminary adjustments for fit and comfort were made for each athlete, Mr. Haley said. The company also sent a team of specialists to Sochi to make adjustments as needed. The U.S. team wore the suits in the past month for simulated race conditions, but the Games marked the first time in competition.
The new U.S. suits were a topic of conversation among rival teams at the Adler Arena’s morning practice Thursday. Overhearing a conversation about them, a Dutch coach shouted, “Are you talking about the suits? They’re slower!”
U.S. national long-track team coach Ryan Shimabukuro declined to discuss the suits or Under Armour. “I’m not going to criticize them, even if I was allowed to,” he said. “They’re a great partner. And it’d be stupid to criticize a company that has backed us completely.”
This isn’t the first time the U.S. speedskating team has had issues with an experimental suit going into the Winter Olympics. In 2006, when the team was sponsored by Nike, it reverted to older Nike suits before the Games.
Mr. Davis said his start in Wednesday’s losing 1,000-meter race was one of the fastest of his career. Normally after such a strong start, he said, “there’s no way, no way in hell, that I would post a 25.4 [second] lap.”
On Saturday, Mr. Davis will compete in the 1,500-meter race, an event in which he has twice won silver medals. But he tempered expectations for the longer race. If the suit was the problem in the 1,000 meter, he said, “then it’s probably going to be worse because it’s more laps to skate under the thing.”
Peter Mueller, a one-time Olympic gold medal winner in the 1,000 meters who went on to coach such U.S. greats as Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen, said that a suit affects a skater two ways. There is the impact on speed. And there is comfort, which can affect a skater’s confidence.
Mr. Mueller, who watched the race on TV, said he had never seen Mr. Davis start so quickly. He couldn’t explain why he slowed down, but he thought the suit might have played a part.
“If I was Shani, I’d talk to Under Armour and I’d see if I could use my Nike [suit] and put an Under Armour sticker on it.”
Don’t know if these new suits are slower or not, but the fact that another country tried something similar and ditched them really makes you wonder. And how about calling the Mach 39 outfit “the fastest speedskating suit in the world”, but never bothering to actually try it in competition before they Olympics? Brilliant! Hey guys, let’s just change up a critical piece of gear right before the biggest competition of our lives and hope it works out. That’s like switching from a traditional putter to a belly putter on playoff hole at The Masters because you suddenly realize that, yes, they really do look more stable. Just something you don’t do. Even The Titanic thinks US speedskating’s uniform switch was overly cocky.