Sochi 2014: Speedskating Redux

Since we wrote about the US team’s speedskating suits last week, they have become the subject of major controversy. After six events, the US team had not placed higher than seventh despite strong World Cup results during the autumn. The Wall Street Journal reported that three people familiar with the team suggested a design flaw:

Vents on back of the suit, designed to allow heat to escape, are also allowing air to enter and create drag that keeps skaters from staying in the low position they need to achieve maximum speed, these people said. One skater said team members felt they were fighting the suit to maintain correct form. #

To address this, some members had seamstresses sew fabric over the vent. The upper left image shows the original suit and the one on the right shows a team member in a modified suit. The change made no apparent impact on the skaters’ finish. The US team has no gone so far as to get a special dispensation to switch back to their older suits but still the podium eluded skaters in Saturday’s events. 

Now, to be clear, I have not seen any data on the development of Under Armour’s suits beyond the public coverage, and I have no connections to any of the parties involved. However, given the extensive nature of the wind tunnel development that went into these suits, I would be exceptionally surprised if there was a design flaw capable of slowing skaters down by nearly 1 second over 1000 meters. It would require a major flaw in the testing design and methodology to overlook such a substantial drag effect.

At the same time, there are other factors that may be affecting the US team adversely. Sochi’s races are taking place at low altitudes, where the air is denser and drag is greater. This does affect all competitors, but it is worth noting that many of the US speedskaters train at altitude in Salt Lake City and that the entire team had their training camp at high altitude in Italy prior to Sochi.  Another factor is the ice conditions. Salt Lake has what is considered fast ice that permits longer glides between each step, whereas Sochi has soft ice, which requires a faster tempo and does not glide as easily. (Image credits: Under Armour, Getty Images, P. Semansky/AP)

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