U.S. speedskating team controversy with Under Armour Suits (updated Febr. 21, 2014)

U.S. speedskating team controversy with Under Armour Suits

P1-BP140_SKATE_G_20140217190304The U.S. half of the team wanted to drop its controversial Under Armour suits for the rest of the Sochi Olympic Games, because the athletes complained that the suits were compromising their performance

Under Armour provided the team with three different suit configurations in advance of Sochi. The so called Mach 39 suits, which Under Armour developed exclusively for the team in conjunction with Lockheed Martin engineers and labelled as “the fastest speedskating suit in the world” became a target of criticism last week from athletes after several U.S. medal contenders finished off the podium.

Kevin Haley, Under Armour’s senior vice president of innovation claimed that the company has sponsored the U.S. team since 2011, and the firm was confident that its suits were fast, but that in the absence of medal winning performance, the company would “move heaven and earth to make them better”. The company was working hard to modify the Under Armour logo on the replacement uniforms to comply with International Olympic Committee regulations. The team said it had brought the older uniforms with them to Sochi. Now they were asking the IOC and the International Skating Union to be granted the option of changing back to their old suits as early as last Saturday.

The main criticism from the skaters was that the vents on the back of the suit, intended to let heat escape, were letting in air and making it harder for athletes to skate with proper form. Concerns over these design flaws were firstly reported by The Wall Street Journal last Thursday.

The team was provided with the suits since January 1 and tested them in simulated race conditions during their pre-Olympics camp. But the skaters had never worn them in completion before the games.

The uniform swap puts Under Armour in a tough spot, if the U.S. team wins medals in the old suits, because a change to the old ones seems to be legal by the Olympic Protocol.

Some skaters requested fixes to the Mach 39 suit from Under Armour’s seamstress in Sochi. By the time Heather Richardson, who dominated the World Cup circuit this season, competed in the women’s 1000, the controversial vent on her suit had been covered up with a rubber patch. Even with the change, she finished only seventh. Patrick Meek, who worked closely with Under Armour and Lockheed Martin throughout the development process, stood by the two companies’ design, stated “These guys make F-16 fighter jets, if they can invade Afghanistan, they can build a speedskating suit.”

With a global TV audience watching, the losing continued on February 17, 2014 even after the team reverted to a previous Under Armour model. The team is now likely to leave Sochi withouth winning a single medal, the worst Olympics in three decades for American speedskaters.

Some insiders say that once doubts about the suit were planted in the team’s psyche, the skaters’ collective mental focus was broken. The team itself has pored over a multitude of other factors that could have contributed to their poor showing: race tactics, skate blades and the decision to hjold their pre-Olympic camp at high altitude.

The dramatic turnabout, meanwhile has created a crisis for Under Armour. With revenues of USD 2.3 billion (more than 90 % stem from North America), the Baltimore (USA) based company has  skyrocketed to prominence in recent years with sleek skin-gripping sports apparel that made it a darling of athletes and investors alike. On Friday last, its stock fell 2.38 % and long term effects cannot be excluded.

Newest development on February 21

Believe it or not, but Under Armour took the bull by the horn and is renewing its support for the US speedskating team for eight (!) instead of four years! And CEO Kevin PLank stated to the Wall Street Journal: that he  is a proud American and therefore his company will not retreat from supporting the team despite the challenges we have gone through together.” And US Speedskating executive director Ted Morris said: “We were not that omptimistic, to be hones, when you look at how things transpired, it’s tough to imagine anay company saying we want to stick with these guyes. FRom our standpoint, that was hard to fathom”. But he informed in an email to athletes that this is the case.



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