The U.S. has sucked something fierce in speed skating so far at Sochi. Through more than half of its races, Team USA still hasn't medaled. This is astonishing, because speed skating is traditionally one of the U.S.'s strongest winter sports. One explanation for the dip? As the Wall Street Journal first reported, it may well be a racing suit that's never been worn in competition before these Olympics.
The suit in question is called the Mach 39, and was unveiled back in July—after the entire team had qualified for the winter games. It's a joint venture between Under Armour and Lockheed Martin (airplanes! aerodynamics! fancy distractions!). At the time, the testing seemed thorough, like sports performance always sounds. Here's how Sports Illustrated explained it:
Redesigning the skin focused solely on full-body aerodynamics. Using Lockheed Martin's expertise during a two-year research and testing program, engineers employed high-speed cameras to help create computational fluid dynamic models that analyzed how air flowed around the skater during key body positions.
Coupled with over 300 hours of wind-tunnel testing on reinforced fiberglass mannequins with hundreds of different skins setups and textile configurations, the research allowed designers to zero in — down to the millimeter, actually — on exactly how and where to build the new suit.
Sounds great, if it works. Except, Team USA's been a disaster. Heather Richardson, the top-ranked women's skater, finished seventh in the 1000 meter. Brittany Bowe, the world record holder, finished eighth. Shani Davis, top ranked men's skater, finished eighth in the 1000m. Brian Hansen, who is the U.S. champion in the 1500m, and took second place in the U.S championships 1000m in 2013, finished ninth in the 1000m. And so on. This despite the Americans performing typically well in the recent World Cup events—so it's not as though they simply haven't been able to find their form lately.
With the entire team performing poorly, everyone figures it's the suits. According to the Wall Street Journal, Richardson went as far as covering up the vents on the back of her suit before her race, though it didn't help much in the end.
Here's how a WSJ source explained the problem with the vent:
These people [close to team USA] said that vents on back of the suit, designed to allow heat to escape, are allowing air to enter the suit and create drag that keeps the skaters from staying in the "low" position they need to achieve maximum speed. One skater said team members felt they were fighting the suit to maintain correct form.
So that's kind of damning. But of course, there are a ton of variables in the air. Another explanation could be the team's preparation, which was at altitude in northern Italy. Sochi is at sea level, but that should, by traditional training measures, be a benefit. However, the track where the team trained was outdoors, while the track at Sochi's is indoors. So that could be part of the difference as well.
The U.S. is trying to get approval from the IOC to wear the suits it wore in the World Cup—though not all of the racers brought theirs, so many would have to be flown in in time for this weekend's races. Whatever happens, this is a perfect moment in sports business fucking up sports competition, only in a much more imbalancing way than a new weirdo ball for the World Cup. Because Under Armour needed to have a big unveiling at the Olympics, the U.S. skaters didn't get a chance to compete in the suits they'd be wearing at the games, and because Team USA now can't be sure if its performance is actually because of shitty suits, it can't focus on other problems, if it happens to be something else.