For Olympic speedskaters, aerodynamics is paramount. Their suits are designed to help them gain as much speed as possible without dragging against the air, which would slow them down. The suits even have hoods attached to enclose the skater’s head in an aerodynamic little bubble.
But maybe the design of the suit isn’t the only thing that can help a skater’s speed. Andrew Keh at the New York Times reported that that the German and Norwegian speedskating teams would be wearing blue uniforms at the upcoming 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang. Neither team has worn blue uniforms before, and it’s a huge departure for the Norwegian team, which has won many medals in their famous (and bold) red uniforms.
So why the change? Apparently, the blue uniforms just “skate faster.”
If you’re expecting a summary of all the testing and scientific studies that were done to determine that blue is the fastest color, you’re going to be disappointed. There doesn’t seem to be any science behind it at all. Even a professor of color science and technology at North Carolina State University named Renzo Shamey couldn’t wrap his head around it, as he told the Times.
“[B]ased on my knowledge of dye chemistry, I cannot possibly imagine how dying the same fabric with two dyes that have the same properties to different hues would generate differing aerodynamic responses.”
So that’s a hard “no” from science. And to add more intrigue to the red vs. blue debate, Harvard Myklebust, the sports scientist behind Norway’s suit change, didn’t have much to say about the new suits when Keh asked.
“What I’ve said is, our new blue suit is faster than our old red suit,” he said with a tight smile, “and I stand by that.”
Myklebust didn’t elaborate on what else was different between the new blue suit and the old red suit, beyond the color. The color change could have been incidental. It could have been the easiest dye to get, or the only color that a certain type of fabric came in. But when uniform designs are a closely guarded secret, people are going to focus on the big, obvious differences. And for Norway, that’s the change from red to blue.
But maybe it’s not about the suits themselves adding actual, calculable speed. Maybe it’s about how the suits affect the psychology of those who wear them. The Times spoke to Stephen Westland, who is a professor of color science, about whether the color of a uniform could really change how someone feels.
“Sporting participants wearing some colors may feel more confident or powerful,” Westland said. “And opponents may infer qualities about their opponents that depend upon which colors they are wearing.”
At least there’s some science on Norway’s side. Though who knows how blue was decided to be the color of power, and the color of instilling fear in your opponents. Red had been doing just fine for them so far.
The funniest part of all this? The Norwegian team may just be doing this to screw with everyone’s heads.
Some in the sport wondered if the Norwegians were playing mind games with their competitors. In speedskating, posturing is as common as actual technological progress.
“I look at that as the oldest trick in the book,” Mike Crowe, the coach of the Canadian team, said about the color switch and ensuing intrigue. “It’s just gamesmanship, really. Make them doubt. Make them wonder.”
At the very least, the focus on the color change is definitely making people wonder.
In the end, it’s all about how the suits make the wearers feel. If skaters feel like they’re faster in blue, there’s no harm in the suit being blue. A positive psychological headspace is an important element of any athletic competition, so maybe the skaters are faster in blue because they believe they will be.
It’s only eight weeks until the Olympics start. The world will just have to wait until then to see if blue really is the fastest color.
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