Nation | Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics

Maybe It's The Suit: U.S. Speedskaters Swap Gear In Sochi

NPR | Feb. 14, 2014 4:34 p.m. | Updated: Feb. 24, 2014 6:15 a.m.

Contributed By:

Bill Chappell

Part of Series:

Shani Davis of the U.S. skates in the prototype of the official US Speedskating suit during a training session at the Adler Arena Skating Center in Sochi, Russia, Friday. As U.S. skates have fallen short of their goals at the Winter Olympics, some skaters have asked to switch to their old suits.

Shani Davis of the U.S. skates in the prototype of the official US Speedskating suit during a training session at the Adler Arena Skating Center in Sochi, Russia, Friday. As U.S. skates have fallen short of their goals at the Winter Olympics, some skaters have asked to switch to their old suits.

AP, Matt Dunham

The American speedskating team has fallen short of its goals at the Sochi Winter Olympics, with favorites such as Shani Davis and Heather Richardson failing to win medals. Some athletes believe the new racing suits they were given for the Olympics may be slowing them down.

The new suit comes from Under Armour, which also made the ones American skaters wore during their successful World Cup season. And yesterday, U.S. Speedskating asked Olympic and skating officials for permission to switch back to the old ones, if a skater prefers, as The Wall Street Journal reported.

“The general feeling from the athletes, it’s pretty darn close to 50-50” on whether the new suit is slowing them down, U.S. Speedskating executive director Ted Morris told the Journal. He did not say which skaters had problems with the new suit.

Under Armour says it has workers in Sochi who are trying to adjust the new suit to ease worries about its ventilation panels and other concerns raised by some racers.

“We are making changes right now with our team on the ground,” Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank, tells Bloomberg Television.

Those changes may come in to play on Saturday at the men’s 1,500-meter race. Shani Davis performed well at that distance in the recent World Cup season, from which he emerged as the third-ranked man overall. He’s also a two-time Olympic silver medalist in the event.

So far, no U.S. skater has finished better than seventh in Sochi. Any improvements in the Americans’ performance would surely attract even more attention to the suits.

Called the “Mach 39,” the new suit raised eyebrows when it was unveiled last month, mainly because it veered away from the established goal of making racing suits as “slippery” to wind currents as possible.

The shift came after wind-tunnel tests showed that a disruptive surface like that of a golf ball was “faster” than a smooth one, as NPR’s Greg Allen reported.

“We’re putting little bumps or dimples onto the suit to disrupt the air in just the right places,” Under Armour’s vice president for innovation, Kevin Haley, said of the suit, which was designed with the help of defense contractor Lockheed Martin.

The suit’s potential to reduce race times was one factor for officials’ deciding to unveil it in January, after Olympic trials were held in Salt Lake City.

But not everyone is blaming the suit for the Americans’ disappointments, which come as the Netherlands dominates races in Sochi. As U.S. Speedskating coach Kip Carpenter tells Bloomberg, “In my opinion, the Dutch are just sitting deeper and pushing harder. They are just skating better than us.”

As NBC reports, the Dutch skaters are also using a new suit — but it’s one they raced in during the recent World Cup season:

“The Dutch athletes began testing their new suits during the World Cup season and were allowed to use them at the country’s highly competitive Olympic trials. That seems to have worked out just fine for the speed skating powerhouse, which has won 12 of 18 medals — including four golds — at the big oval.”

And while Carpenter said the skaters should change to the old suit if it makes them more comfortable, he also said they wouldn’t lose a second in a 1,000-meter race “because of a skin suit.”

Still, when the new suit was first introduced in January, NBC speedskating commentator Dan Jansen told NPR that the suit could bring small gains to U.S. skaters.

“When a race is decided by hundredths of a second, sometimes a thousandth now, and you might look back and maybe you wouldn’t know that’s the difference,” Jansen said. “But there’s a good chance that that would be the difference.”

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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