Are Flawed Uniforms to Blame for America's Speed Skating Problems?

A workman never blames his tools, but sometimes the athlete might blame the uniform

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A workman never blames his tools, but sometimes the athlete might blame the uniform. A possible design flaw in those high-tech speed skating suits — touted as God's gift to aerodynamics in the run-up to Sochi — might be slowing American Olympians down and costing them valuable medals. According to the The Wall Street Journal, the Under Armour Mach 39 suits, dubbed "the fastest speed skating suit in the world" by the company, have turned out to be quite the opposite, and could be to blame for the repeated underperformance of athletes who seemed destined for gold. 

The main problem lies with vents on the back of the suit that are meant to let heat escape, but are instead letting air in. This not only slows down skaters, but also creates a drag that prevents them from maintaining the "low" position required for maximum speed. The problem has gotten so bad that several skaters have taken their Under Armour uniforms to a company seamstress to insert an extra piece of rubber into the panel.

Under Armour has sponsored the U.S. speed skating team since 2011 and said they'll "move heaven and earth" to make the suits better. They already invested considerable resource into developing the Mach 39. The suit endured 300 hours of wind-tunnel tests and even took design tips from aircraft engineers at Lockheed Martin. Truly an American suit, they had never been worn in competition until the Olympics this week.

There were promising innovations to the speed skating uniform that were all intended to make skaters whiz faster around the ice. Raised rubber bumps and dimples were influenced by golf ball design and added to disrupt the air flow, Kevin Haley, vice president for innovation at Under Armour, told NPR. Zippers are diagonal to stop skaters being hit in the throat by them mid-race.

All that technology was meant to give the Americans an advantage over other nations, but it now looks like a very embarrassing liability. Shani Davis holds the world record in the 1,000 meters, but finished eighth in his event, far away from where he expected. Out of six speed skating events so far, no American has finished higher than seventh place. They won 4 medals in 2010.

"I would like to think that it's not the suit," Davis told the WSJ, adding that he'd rather only blame himself. And Olympic rules bar Davis from wearing the extra suit he packed because all team members must be wearing the same uniform when competing. And good manners bar the skaters from publicly criticizing their team's only sponsor. Davis will have another chance to improve Team U.S.A.'s standing on Saturday when he competes in the 1,500 meters. 

Faulty vents are one thing, but viewers have been noticing something else about the suits. As well as the uniforms looking not unlike car mats, some people have taken to Twitter to note the startling resemblance to a certain piece of elephant anatomy. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.