The controversy over whether Under Armour's high-tech skinsuits contributed to U.S. speedskaters' poor showing at the Sochi Olympics seemed over when the Baltimore-based sports brand renewed its sponsorship of the sport through two more Winter Olympics and said the suits would be back. That deal was announced even before the end of the February games.
Now, US Speedskating has identified factors that led to athletes' failure to medal, and the design of the suits is not among them, Ted Morris, executive director, said Friday.
The black suits had been billed as the fastest ever but became the prime suspect for a disappointing performance. Midway through the competition, skaters decided to swap them for an earlier Under Armour version.
But Friday, Morris said an internal assessment found a host of problems -- excessive travel in advance of the games, unpredictable outdoor training conditions at a facility in Italy just before competition and a lack of advance data on the athletes' performance. And though the findings showed no failure in the performance of the suits, the sport’s governing body said the garments along with a new skate polish -- also developed by a Maryland company – were "game changers" that should have been used by the athletes far ahead of the games.
A bigger issue, Morris said Friday, was a demanding travel schedule.
After a week's recovery after the Olympic trials at the end of December, the athletes traveled to a competition in Nagano, Japan, before heading to Italy for pre-Olympic training, where conditions were colder and faster-changing than anticipated. The team then flew to Munich before arriving in Sochi, he said.
"For whatever reason, our athletes were not physically peaked at the games," based on strength analyses done leading to and through the games, Morris said. "We over-traveled going into the games. We think that took a toll on their physical readiness for the games."
US Speedskating also "missed the mark on predicting accurately our team's performance in Sochi" due to a shortage of data gathering and analysis. "The idea that we were going to win 10 medals was not realistic," he said.
The study found that the suits, along with the skate blade polishing tool developed by Lanham-based aerospace firm Sigma Space, were game changers that were introduced to the athletes too late instead of being used all season long.
"We knew we had a secret weapon and wanted to pull those things out as late as possible, and we should have introduced those earlier in the season," to give the athletes time to adjust, Morris said. In hindsight, he said, holding back on the suits and polish was a mistake. "That backfired on us. We would have had them racing in the Mach 39 in the fall and using the skate polish in the fall. That’s a big lesson."
Under Armour had no comment on governing body's findings. But the company has said it delivered the suits, designed in collaboration with defense contractor Lockheed Martin, on time and in a timeline mutually agreed upon with US Speedskating. Under Armour executives had said the suit will be back in future competitions, including the 2018 games in Seoul, South Korea.
“If we didn't believe in the Mach 39, we would never have allowed it to be used in an Olympic setting," Matt Mirchin, Under Armour's executive vice president of global marketing, said after signing the deal with US Speedskating in February. "The Mach 39 will live. We know that it's the best suit out there to wear."
On Friday, Morris said US Speedskating is working with Under Armour on planning a suit for next year and "there will be Mach 39 technology in those suits…To me, this hasn’t been about Under Armour at all."