The U.S. speedskating team has been a massive disappointment in Sochi, with no skaters finishing better than seventh in any event. Several big-name skaters, such as 2006 and 2010 gold medalist Shani Davis, suffered finishes not close to their usual standards. Much of the blame for these failures has fallen on the team's new suit, the "Mach 39," developed by Under Armour with technology from defense and aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin. A Wall Street Journal report on Thursday revealed that the suits were never tested in competition and feature a back vent that may slow skaters down. Soon after, the U.S. team was cleared to use their old suits — also from Under Armour — although they didn't seem to help at all in Saturday's 1500-meter final.
Even after its removal from competition, the Mach 39 continues to be a source of discussion and controversy. In a new report for the Associated Press, Paul Newberry details the extent of the debacle, including the surprising reason the suit wasn't tested in competition and more issues with its development:
According to [Under Armour senior vice president of innovation Kevin] 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.
Sure, 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 they arrived in Sochi. [...]
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 all along. 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, a vent-like tab on the back, might actually slow a skater down.
While these arguments against the decision not to test and the vent have existed for several days, Newberry's report reveals a whole new slate of problems in this process. For one thing, the choice not to test in competition seems somewhat hilarious if it arose from a worry that other countries would steal the design, because it seems readily apparent that the Mach 39 is not some special speedskating version of "The Tuxedo." Unless skaters were posting world-record times in training every single day, this decision smacks of paranoia.
The points raised regarding other teams that had tried (and discarded) some of these developments is a little more understandable, if also embarrassing. High-level athletics can be remarkably secretive, so it's unlikely that any country would announce what suit alterations they'd tried prior to development of the Mach 39. For all we know, Under Armour and Lockheed Martin thought they were doing something truly new, even if the Dutch team had happened upon it independently. It's not as if the developers simply ignored existing scientific literature, and the idea could have looked fine on paper. Plus, those issues are supposed to be worked out in testing regardless.
The most troubling part of this report, really, is that complaints with the Mach 39 might have been ignored during its ostensible testing process. If skaters found the suits problematic, then they should have spoken up. If they did and were not listened to, then it seems like team officials were more concerned with a future-oriented marketing plan than on-ice performance. Or, if skaters didn't feel comfortable bringing up problems, then that suggests team officials created an atmosphere in which the desire to see the Mach 39 succeed made the athletes uncomfortable in criticizing it. Whatever the case, it looks like U.S. Speedskating has a lot to look at regarding the Mach 39 development process.
It's possible, of course, that this controversy is all overblown, and that the speedskaters are raising issues with the suits as a way of deflecting blame for their substandard performances. Their argument isn't helped by the failures of skaters using modified versions of the Mach 39 and/or the old Under Armour suits — really, they've been pretty bad in Sochi no matter what outfits they put on.
Yet the real explanation may not involve such a simple relationship between cause and effect. At the Olympic level, athletes expect few distractions if they want to perform at their best. Perhaps the uneasy testing process and uneven rollout of these suits created doubts that U.S. speedskaters just weren't able to push aside, leading to lapses in concentration and various other bumps on the way to the podium. Maybe, even after the change in outfits, the controversy itself introduced too many new pressures into Olympic competition. In other words, the problem may have been that the uncertainty over these suits has caused skaters to focus on things other than their own skating. It could be a total failure not dependent on any one factor.
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