The U.S. speedskating team entered the Sochi Olympics hoping to best the four medals it won in Vancouver in 2010. Its members had performed very well at the World Cup competitions in Salt Lake City and Vancouver last year, and several skaters in both the long and short track events were expected to medal in key Olympic events.
By February 14, however, after six days of competition and no medals to show for it, that optimism was all but gone. None of the skaters had finished better than seventh place so far. Shani Davis, considered a medal favorite by many, finished eighth in the 1,000 meters, an event he won at both the 2006 and 2010 games and in three of four World Cup events in that distance.
Team officials began to seek answers as to why the skaters were finishing so far behind the competition. They started to question everything, from training location altitude to race strategy to skate blades.
They also began to wonder about its new uniform, a skinsuit made by athletic apparel and footwear maker UnderArmour designed with the help of aerospace technology company Lockheed Martin. Dubbed the “fastest speedskating suit in the world,” and made of several different technical fabrics designed for speed and comfort, the suit had a back vent opening to let out perspiration. The suits had withstood 300 hours of wind tunnel testing. The team wore them in simulated race conditions during pre-Olympics training but never in competition, hoping to keep the new design a secret.
After its skaters started to perform poorly, reports surfaced that the skaters felt the suits were letting in air, which caused drag and prevented them from staying in proper form. In a sport in which hundredths of a second count, such aerodynamic meddling can be devastating.
Until the speed skating events began in Sochi, things had been going very well for UnderArmour. The company had just reported a very successful quarter and fiscal year with double-digit sales and earnings growth. Its footwear business was taking off, and new cold weather products were a big hit with consumers. Though only a tenth the size of Nike, UnderArmour was ready to become an international player. Its global expansion strategy would get a great boost by a successful performance on the Sochi stage.
On Saturday February 15, with approval by the International Olympic Committee, the team, desperate to turn its fortunes around, decided to switch back to UnderArmour suits they had worn with success at the World Championships last year at Sochi, hoping that at the very least, the improvement in confidence would finally get at least one of them up on the podium.
It didn’t. The medal drought continued, and the U.S. speedskating team ended up winning only one medal, the silver for the 5,000 meter short track relay.
Although it’s sometimes tempting to blame equipment, there are many variables that impact an athletic performance, particularly at the Olympic level. The suits might have contributed to the problem, but they were probably not the only factor. The team’s decision to train at high altitudes in Italy before the games instead of at a Sochi-like sea level location is one possibility. Another is the U.S. Speedskating organization itself, reportedly plagued by infighting, management turnover and lack of firm direction. Still another is the physical and emotional pressure caused by each day the team came up empty-handed. The bottom line is we will probably never know for sure how big a role each factor played in the speed skating team’s Olympic meltdown.
It’s also important to note that the Americans weren’t losing races by a mere whisker. Shani Davis finished the 1000 meter race 0.7 seconds behind the winner and 0.4 seconds out of medal contention. Heather Richardson finished the 500 meters more than a second after the gold medal winner and a quarter of a second behind the bronze.
Throughout all of this, both the speedskaters and UnderArmour representatives remained supportive. Neither party blamed the other, at least publicly, but worked as a team to try to fix the situation. UnderArmour said the company was “moving heaven and earth” to fix the problem. Skaters expressed appreciation for all the company has done for the team. They looked inward, blaming themselves and their training. Although the U.S. team members were beating their World Championship times, they weren’t improving them by enough. Other teams, particularly the Netherlands, had become even faster. The Dutch dominated speed skating at these games, winning twenty-one out of thirty individual medals, and gold in all four team pursuits.
By the end of the games, the controversy surrounding the suits had settled down. On Friday February 21, the last day of speedskating competition, UnderArmour announced it had extended its sponsorship of the team for the next two Olympics, through 2022, saying it had “doubled down” on its financial support for the team.
The Winter Olympics ended last night in a spectacular closing ceremony featuring teams of athletes, acrobats, dancers and musicians in a dramatic display of sound, light and movement. At the risk of sounding clichÃ©, it’s hard to miss the fact that the games are a metaphor for life. While amazingly gifted and gutsy people compete in the world’s most demanding arena, the rest of us watch, enthralled by the unfolding drama, cheering for our heroes, hoping they have worked hard enough to conquer their shortcomings so that when they stumble, they will be able to get up and, ultimately, to prevail.
During these two weeks in Sochi, an unlikely competitor became the focus of much attention. UnderArmour stumbled and tripped, but kept itself from falling. The company handled itself with professionalism and integrity, and taught us all a thing or two about what it takes to win, and how to recover from a setback like a true champion.