SOCHI, Russia — They were touted as the fastest speedskating suits in the world.
Now the United States is dumping the high-tech attire after a dismal start to the Sochi Olympics.
Kevin Haley, vice president of innovation for suit developer Under Armour, said Friday the Americans had received permission to go back to the suits they used while posting impressive results on the fall World Cup circuit and at the U.S. Olympic trials in December.
The change begins Saturday with the men’s 1,500 meters, when Shani Davis hopes to make up for a disappointing performance in his first race at Sochi.
Under Armour was busy altering the logo on the old suits, so it conforms with International Olympic Committee regulations.
“We want to put the athletes in the best possible position when they’re stepping on the ice to be 100 percent confident in their ability to capture a spot on the podium,” Haley said by phone from Baltimore.
The change was a stunning reversal after the Americans arrived in Sochi proclaiming they had a suit that would give them a technological edge over rival countries such as the Netherlands.
Instead, the Dutch have dominated through the first six races, winning 12 of a possible 18 medals, including four golds. The Americans have yet to finish higher than seventh; Davis and female stars Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe have all been major disappointments.
While Haley expressed confidence in the new suit, saying all the data proved it should produce faster times, he said the company agreed to the change because a few athletes felt it was actually a drag on their times.
“If they have one less thing to be distracted by,” Haley said, “that should give them a little bit of an advantage.”
The new skinsuits, developed with help from aerospace and defense giant Lockheed Martin and unveiled just before the Sochi Olympics, had definitely become a major distraction.
Even though several coaches and athletes defended the technology, it was clear that U.S. Speedskating needed to change things up to make sure this didn’t become a total bust of a Winter Games.
“Morale is down right now,” said Joey Mantia, another of the U.S. skaters in the 1,500.
The new suit, known as “Mach 39,” has become a convenient explanation for the American woes, because they were unveiled so late in the game, without giving the skaters a chance to wear them in competition.
Even before the Olympics began, the designer of the Dutch suits expressed skepticism about the American claims. Bert van der Tuuk said he even tested some of the elements used in the U.S. suit – rivets, seams, bumps and a diagonal zipper to cut down on drag – and found they provided no significant edge.
Others backed the new suits. Haley said the majority of the team wanted to stick with it, but the change was made to make sure everyone was comfortable. ISU rules require the entire team to wear the same suit.
“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is the most scientific suit in the whole world,” said U.S. skater Patrick Meek. “These guys make F-16 fighter jets. If they can invade Afghanistan and Iraq, they can build a speedskating suit.”
The Dutch athletes began testing their own new suits during the World Cup season and were allowed to use them at the country’s highly competitive Olympic trials.
U.S. coach Kip Carpenter said there are plenty of plausible reasons for the U.S. woes beyond the suits.
“The human factor is by far the largest piece out there,” said Carpenter, a former skater and Olympic medalist. “There’s not an athlete out there who is slowing down a second per lap because of the suit they’re in. What is it: a parachute on their back?”
Another U.S. coach, Matt Kooreman, questioned whether the team peaked too soon and became complacent after their impressive World Cup showings.
“Did we lay off the gas after it looked like things were going well?” he said. “I’m sure the Dutch went back home after those North American World Cups and were really in attack mode.”
Before going back to the old suit, Under Armour tried some low-tech alterations to the new model.
“They did adjust one part on the back, but it was just putting rubber over the mesh there,” Richardson said after a disappointing performance in the 1,000, a race she dominated during the World Cup season. “It had no effect really.”
Looking to become the first male speedskater to win the same event at three straight games, Davis finished eighth in the 1,000 on Wednesday – the first indication that something might be seriously wrong with the U.S. preparation.
On Thursday, Richardson was seventh and Bowe eighth over the same distance for the women, another staggering blow given Richardson had won three World Cup events this season and Bowe took the other with a world-record time.
“It’s sad,” Mantia said. “I almost cried … watching that race.”
Davis, a two-time silver medalist in the 1,500, was trying to remain confident despite all the turmoil surrounding the suits.
“I didn’t come all this way to start having doubts,” he said after his off-day workout. “I trained really hard. I’m focused. I’m feeling good. I’m going to go out there and do the best I can. That’s all I can do.”
When it came to the new suits, he was more guarded with his words.
“Suit or no suit, I’ve got to go out there and try to win,” he said.
As a U.S. Speedskating media official tried to hustle Davis out of the mixed zone, he stopped to answer another question.
“It’s not their fault,” he told the official, indicating he didn’t mind the reporters’ questions on the suits, which clearly have become a major issue within the team.
Then again, maybe it’s not the suits at all.
Michel Mulder, who led a Dutch sweep of the medals in the men’s 500, offered another explanation.
“It could also be,” he said of the Americans, “that they were just outclassed here.”