In Sochi, Under Armour skates into some sturm und drang

Some lessons for Baltimore-based apparel-maker to take home from Sochi

  • Shani Davis competes in the the Men's Speed Skating 1000 m at the Adler Arena during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 12, 2014.
Shani Davis competes in the the Men's Speed Skating 1000… (Damien Meyer / AFP/Getty…)
February 15, 2014|Dan Rodricks

What are the lessons from the flap over Under Armour's Mach 39 speed skater suit and its supposed connection to the U.S. team's poor early showing at the Winter Olympics? Walk with me, let's talk.

If you follow flaps — and who doesn't? — you know that some American speed skaters suggested that the new super-suits were not so super. In fact, some thought the suits were a real drag.

The Mach 39 has an oval-shaped mesh vent on the back to relieve skaters of body heat, and that appears to be why, late last week, there was a lot of sturm und drang from Sochi.

A lot of sturm und drang over air und drag.

It was suggested that the vent was a design flaw: As skaters dashed along the ice, air went through the vent and down their backs, creating ballooning in their bottoms and slowing them down. (OK, nobody said "ballooning in their bottoms." But I think it's a descriptive phrase for what might have occurred.)

I'm not a fashion designer, but I know a speed skater can't have ballooning in his bottom if he hopes to win gold.

While we're on the subject, let me ask: Why did Under Armour feel a need to have a vent in the first place? Isn't this the company that made its name with micro fibers that wick moisture and keep athletes cool, dry, and light?

But, I digress.

Back to the flap:

Going into the weekend, U.S. speed skaters were on the verge of their worst Olympic performance in three decades, and fingers pointed toward the much-hyped Mach 39. Kevin Plank, the Under Armour CEO and one of Baltimore's leading citizens, had to defend his suit and his company on international television; you'd think the guy had been responsible for the fatal O-rings on Space Shuttle Challenger or Maryland's lemon of a health insurance exchange — you know, something actually important.

But Plank held up through the tempest, and the outcome wasn't exactly awful. On Friday, the U.S. team scrapped the Mach 39 and decided to resume competition in an "older" racing suit, also from Under Armour, which brings us to the lessons.

Lesson 1: If it ain't broke, don't fix it

Until late last year, the U.S. Olympic team apparently had a perfectly fine Under Armour suit. They won big races in it. "We've performed well in the World Cups suits. I won a World Cup in that suit," skater Joey Mantia said.

So why the Mach 39? It sounds like a sports-apparel version of the iPhone 5 upgrade, more hype than real improvement.

For the Mach 39, Under Armour famously brought defense contractor Lockheed Martin into the act. What a story: The planet's coolest sports apparel company, based in Baltimore, joins forces with the Bethesda-based maker of jets and missiles to give American speed skaters an "edge" in world competition.

Using computer modeling based on videos of the skaters and hundreds of hours of wind-tunnel testing, they came up with an aerodynamic skin that Under Armour claimed would be "the fastest speed skating suit in the world.''

Adding to the hype: The project was said to be top secret, with the suit's unveiling held until December.

I guess they have a lot of nervous energy at Tide Point. Not content to take the winning suit from the World Cup to the Olympics, Under Armour decided it needed something new and fabulous for the big stage. We now see how that worked out.

Gotta ask: How would anyone, besides the few speed skaters who competed at the World Games in Utah, know that they were wearing the same suit at Sochi? Was Plank and his team worried that the fashionistas would notice? ("Look at Shani Davis, in the same skin he wore at Cups. He's soooo 2013.")

Lesson 2: Road test this baby

Call me superstitious, but what athlete wears anything brand new to the big game? Do hockey players break in new skates for the Stanley Cup? I don't think so. Do runners put on brand-new shoes for a marathon? Maybe Under Armour should have held off hyping the Mach 39 until someone wearing it actually won a race somewhere in the world.

Lesson 3: Good excuses still sound bad

Even if it turns out to be justified, the grumbling about the Mach 39 from the U.S. team sounded like so much waa-waa-waa. What a bunch of sore losers. You want some borscht with that whine? Here's my take on this little first-world problem: The U.S. skaters were looking for an edge over the competition. Under Armour promised them one. It didn't work out. Stop making excuses and move on.

Lesson 4: Remove the 'edge' factor

Have all Olympic speed skaters wear the same suit and same skates from the same manufacturers. (Under Armour can compete for the international contract.) That way, everyone experiences the same amount of air und drag, eliminating all sturm und drang, and winning comes down to skill and thighs.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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