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Olympics / Sports

Netherland's Ireen Wust competes during the ladies 1000 meter race at Adler Arena during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Thursday, February 13, 2014. Wust finished second to capture the Silver Medal in the event. (Harry E. Walker/MCT)

U.S. speedskaters will hang up new Under Armour suits for old

U.S. speedskaters will resume competition Saturday in an older racing suit from Baltimore-based Under Armour, hanging up the company's high-tech Mach 39 suit introduced for the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Some skaters worried the new suit may be hurting their performance.

Kevin Haley, Under Armour's senior vice president for innovation, said an Under Armour design team was on the ground in Russia tweaking the older suits, which skaters wore during World Cup competition, to meet International Skating Union standards for use in Sochi.

"We have the utmost confidence in the suits, and there is nothing to indicate that there is anything that needs changing. That said, we make any change that any athlete would like us to make," Haley said in an interview Friday. "We want them in the suit that gives them the most confidence, that lets them walk out on the ice free of distraction, free of even a shred of doubt."

Mike Plant, president of U.S. Speedskating, confirmed the suit switch, saying he has "full confidence in the performance benefits" of all of Under Armour's suits.

Pressure to make the change built this week in the wake of the team's disastrous performance thus far. No U.S. speedskater has medaled, including the world's top-ranked skaters Shani Davis and Heather Richardson. The suit became the leading suspect for the poor showing.

But Haley said the "vast majority" of skaters and U.S. speedskating officials agree that the new suits are not to blame for the team's poor performance to date, and that the change is meant to increase the confidence of skaters who have raised concerns.

Rules set by the International Skating Union, the sport's governing body, require uniforms to be consistent throughout a team. The skaters without concerns didn't mind switching to the older suit, Haley said.

"The ones who don't think it's an issue and don't think it has anything to do with (performance) are happy to wear a different suit," he said.

The dust up over the Mach 39 has disrupted the marketing narrative that Under Armour promotes from its Inner Harbor storefront to global stages like the Olympics: that its attention to research and development translates into top-flight performance gear.

"Frankly, it's the first hiccup they've encountered with any of their products not performing up to standard," said Howe Burch, an executive vice president with Baltimore marketing agency TBC. "It's unfortunate that it's happening on a stage that is as big and as bright as the Olympics."

Still, Burch and other analysts who follow the company think the fallout will likely be minimal. They noted speedskating holds a small place in the global sports spotlight and that it's difficult to blame poor performance on any one thing.

The company, which has its headquarters in Locust Point, has exploded onto the U.S. athletics market -- from football to baseball to lacrosse -- drawing major sponsorships away from competitors. It has targeted niche sports like speedskating as a means to enter a broader world market -- a plan Haley said the company "couldn't be more bullish" on.

Davis said Friday he would not be distracted by the controversy surrounding Under Armour's latest racing suit. After a disappointing eighth-place finish in the 1,000-meter race on Wednesday, he is optimistic about his chances in Saturday's 1,500, perhaps his final individual Olympic race.

"Got to rebound from that 1,000. We still have it here," Davis said Friday, smiling and pointing to his chest. "So let's get it on!"

Coaches and skaters examined everything from training programs to their diet regimen, looking for clues to explain the poor performances.

The Mach 39 -- developed with defense contractor Lockheed Martin -- was marketed by Under Armour as the fastest ever in the sport. It was kept under wraps until after the U.S. Olympic team was set after December's trials. They were not used in competition prior to Sochi.

Patrick Meek, who finished 20th in the 5,000, said he still believes the Mach 39 is fast. But Brian Hansen, who finished 33rd in the 500 and ninth in the 1,000, said Thursday that he was frustrated by not being able to try the suit beforehand.

"If the entire U.S. team is underperforming compared to our potential -- literally everyone -- you can only look at so many factors," he said. "Is it the suit? Is it our preparation? The suit's the easiest thing to fix."

"We've performed well in the World Cups suits. I won a World Cup in that suit," skater Joey Mantia said. "At least there's some kind of confidence there with that."

Kip Carpenter, a U.S. national team coach, said the team was looking at "all options" to improve, and wants to ensure the skaters are in comfortable suits, regardless of which suit. He said German skaters are wearing lower-density suits and the Dutch are simply beating them. In that regard, the Dutch are beating nearly everyone.

"My personal opinion is it's ridiculous to think we're slowing down a second and a half because of a skin suit," said Carpenter, who won bronze medal in 2002. "There's not one athlete out there that thinks they're slowing down a second per lap because of a suit that they're in. What is it, a parachute on the back?"

US Speedskating's Finn Halvorsen, the federation's performance director, declined to discuss reasons for the team's disappointing results -- including the suit -- until after skaters finish in Sochi on Feb. 22.

"I don't think we can say one thing," Halvorsen said. "I think we have to talk about a combination of factors."

Under Armour will continue partnering with athletes and Olympians, Haley said, because it is a marketing approach that pays dividends in the long run.

"It's less like instant waffles and pop tarts, and it's more something that needs to marinate and seep into the public consciousness over a period of time, as they see Under Armour in an authentic way on the best athletes in the world," he said. "We do that to establish a deeper, emotional connection with athletes around the world, who haven't had as much exposure to our brand."

Moreover, he said, "We've never worked with elite athletes like the athletes on the U.S. speedskating team without learning something that we can use."

Burch, the marketing analyst, said the speedskating flap hurts the company's messaging.

"Their whole platform upon which they've built their business is performance, performance products and improving performance of the world's best athletes, and for that matter any athlete," he said. "When your performance credibility is called into question, it's an unfortunate situation, and it's one they're obviously trying to deal with."

But Auburn Bell, an affiliate professor in marketing at Loyola University Maryland's Joseph A. Sellinger School of Business and Management, said the company will likely come out of Sochi relatively unscathed.

"This focus on innovation, in terms of just trying to shave hundredths or thousandths of a second off (race) times, is an incredible advance in technology," he said. "Mistakes are obviously going to happen in this environment, when you're pushing the limits to this extreme."

While gold medals in U.S. speedskating could have been seized on by Under Armour's marketing team, Bell said the company will be able to shift focus to other products in the coming months.

"If there would have been wins, the reward would have been huge, but because of the low profile of the sport, the risk ... is very low," he said. "It's not going to slow them down."

Jared S. Hopkins of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.

(c)2014 The Baltimore Sun

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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