The U.S. speedskating team extended its run of disappointing results at the Sochi Olympics even after switching to another Under Armour Inc. (UA) racing suit.
The team voted to revert to the suit worn during the Olympic trials and World Championships from the Mach 39, which the Baltimore-based apparel maker had described as the fastest suit in the world.
The switch came after a report that the new uniforms were slowing American speedskaters at the Olympics.
“It’s more important to support the athletes and their ability to step on the ice confident that they are in a position to win a medal,” Kevin Haley, Under Armour’s senior vice president for innovation, said in an interview yesterday. “We want them to be in the best position to win.”
Under Armour’s new outfits came under scrutiny after no American finished better than seventh in the first six speedskating events of the Sochi Games. The U.S. won four medals in speedskating in the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Some have blamed the suits’ rear ventilation panels, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, citing three unidentified people familiar with the U.S. team.
“We are making changes right now with our team on the ground,” Kevin Plank, Under Armour chief executive officer and founder, said yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg Television.
No problems were discovered with the ventilation panels in six weeks of testing leading up to the games or after they were delivered to the teams in January, Plank said.
The change of uniforms didn’t seem to help -- no American finished higher than seventh in the men’s 1500 meters today and Shani Davis of the U.S., who had won silver in that event in the previous two Olympics, was 11th.
“We’ll have to test the suit against the other suits to see if it really made that big of a difference,” Davis said after the race. “If you have a bad performance at a World Cup because of a suit then it’s OK, you switch the suit. You can’t do that at the Olympics, there’s too much riding on it.”
There are five more speedskating events left in Sochi.
Under Armour shares declined 2.4 percent to $106 in New York yesterday. The stock had more than doubled in the 12 months through Feb. 13, compared with a 20 percent gain for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.
The report goes to the core of the company’s image as a purveyor of technically advanced apparel that has fueled a more than a doubling of sales in three years.
“If they switch back to the World Cup suit, and they all start medaling again, then it looks bad,” said Matt Powell, an analyst for researcher SportsOneSource. “That would be embarrassing.”
Under Armour had been on a roll. In the fourth quarter, the company boosted sales 35 percent to $682.8 million. That topped the average analyst estimate by 10 percent and marked 15 straight quarterly sales gains of more than 20 percent. To continue that pace, it’s pushing overseas, highlighted by deals with soccer teams in Mexico, Chile and the U.K.
Plank dismissed the suggestion that the reports would slow international expansion or damage the brand. Under Armour currently generates about 95 percent of its sales in the U.S.
“Everyone should take a deep breath, and see how everything turns out,” Plank said. “Let us let the athletes get out there and see what happens.”
Kip Carpenter, the U.S. skating coach, isn’t publicly blaming Under Armour. He said skaters should switch to a different suit if it makes them feel more comfortable.
A skater doesn’t lose a second in the 1,000-meter race “because of a skin suit,” Carpenter told reporters yesterday. “Anyone who thinks that, does not know speedskating. In my opinion, the Dutch are just sitting deeper and pushing harder. They are just skating better than us.”
The Netherlands has made a dominating speedskating showing in Sochi. The Dutch have won four of the first seven competitions and claimed 13 of 21 medals available so far.
Dutch long-distance speedskating coach Jillert Anema said the suits are not the problem for the Americans. Instead, it is the lack of confidence they have in their uniforms.
“Even the worst suit would not take off that much time,” he said in an interview this morning during practice at the Adler Arena. “If you lose your confidence you would not be able to perform well. If the Americans have confidence they will be very dangerous, they always are good when the important match is on.”
Anema said flagging confidence “is growing like a cancer on a team” and that he would have switched suits right away if there were any doubts among the skaters.
“All the suits are tested in wind tunnels, and if it would cost a second in a thousand meters you would find it in a wind tunnel,” he said. “If you don’t have confidence in your suit, it’s deadly. It’s the same as if you throw darts, if you have no confidence you will not hit the target.”
International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams said this morning in a news conference in Sochi that “we don’t see it as any problem at all” if the U.S. speedskaters change uniforms.
As long as the suits used in competition comply with Rule 50 of the IOC charter that regulates branding and the size of logos on uniforms, there should be no hassle, he said.
“The process is running normally,” Adams told reporters. “The IOC has not seen a final proposal yet, but as long as it complies with IOC rules we do not have an issue.”
Haley said most adjustments to the suits have been for comfort, while U.S. Speedskating’s Plant said the team has “full confidence in the performance benefits of each” suit.
“We are constantly evaluating all aspects of race preparation and execution to help our athletes improve their output and maximize their physical and psychological advantages,” Plant said.
Under Armour isn’t the first athletic brand to be blamed for poor performances. In 2005, the National Basketball Association introduced a micro-fiber Spalding game ball without consulting players, prompting complaints that it was too sticky, bounced differently and caused lacerations on players’ hands.
The NBA players union filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board, and the league eventually returned back to the leather ball.
Five years later, soccer went through a similar issue with Adidas’s “Jabulani,” the official ball for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Goalkeepers and field players alike, including Spain’s Iker Casillas, complained that the ball was too light and unpredictable in the air.
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