By Patrick Johnston
SOCHI, Russia, Feb 14 (Reuters) - International Skating Union President Ottavio Cinquanta is a fan of innovation, and after permitting the introduction of clap skates in speed skating he has no plans to interfere in the arms race to develop the perfect suit.
Manufacturers are spending fortunes on developing high-tech suits for speed skaters, who rocket around the oval at 55 kilometres per hour (34mph), in order to shave precious seconds, and fractions of seconds, off their times.
At the Sochi Games, American skaters are wearing the 'Mach 39' suit, which underwent hours of wind tunnel analysis by aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin and has manufacturers Under Armour touting it as the fastest ever.
The Russians and Canadians are also confident their suits will give them an edge, and 75-year-old Italian Cinquanta is happy to sit back and watch the manufacturers work their material magic.
"We do not have experts in the area of materials. We prefer to stay out (of the debate)," the former speed skater said in an interview at the Adler Arena.
"We do not say that you can cheat... but unless there is a company saying 'be careful, we have evidence that with this material... you can skate faster' we stay out."
A similar scenario unfolded in swimming after a slew of world records followed the introduction of all-polyurethane suits.
More than 40 records were set during the 2009 swimming championships, setting off howls of protests and world governing body FINA decided to ban them and place a limit on technology.
Cinquanta, an International Olympic Committee member who has been president of the ISU since 1994, queried the decision.
"They decided to forbid this suit, this uniform, but the world record remains. They have not moved it," Cinquatta said.
"If you say the uniform used by the athletes to perform 100 metres freestyle was not good, (but say) the time is good? It is a question mark.
"I'm not involved, I cannot interfere because the president would tell me 'Mr Cinquatta please be the president of skating not the president of swimming'."
MORE SPEED, PLEASE
The Italian does not want to take the speed out of speed skating. He wants more of it.
He approved the introduction of clap skates, where the blade is hinged on the front of the boot, despite a number of world records at the 1998 Nagano Games.
He also threw out protests about Dutch suits in the same Japanese Olympics which had aerodynamic strips.
"No doubt the bicycles today are better than the bicycles used 20 years ago sure, but what can you do?" he said.
Speed skating rules say suits can have hoods to decrease air resistance, equivalent to a force of five kilogrammes in the men's 500m, but must conform to the natural shape of the skater's body with anything that creates a different shape deemed illegal.
Dutch skater Ireen Wust said prior to her Sochi victory in the women's 3,000m on Sunday that the current changes to the suits were marginal and the age of innovation had been between Nagano and the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
So far she appears right.
Under Armour's suit, made from five different synthetic fibres, does not appear to be giving American skaters an advantage.
At the halfway point of the 12-discipline speed skating competition in Sochi, no American skater has made the podium.
The investment in the suits is in stark contrast to the financial trials and tribulations that some of its wearers have to endure to get to Sochi.
American Kelly Gunther sold t-shirts to help fund her trip to compete in the women's 500, 1,000 and 1,500 metres.
Cinquatta said that as long as the suits and skates were available for all athletes from around the world to buy, the soaring costs were not a concern.
"This is innovation, this is culture, this is progress, this is knowledge," the Italian said.
"If they don't have the money then it is not my fault. What can I say? You can buy a Rolls Royce and I will go with a Fiat."
(Reporting by Patrick Johnston)
- Sports & Recreation
- Ice Skating