A high-tech speedskating suit developed by Under Armour with help from engineers at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth became the talk of the Winter Olympics on Friday.
But not because of a gold medal performance.
Rather, Under Armour was put on the defensive by complaints that a design flaw in the Mach 39 racing suit was to blame for the disappointing performance of highly rated U.S. skaters Shani Davis and Heather Richardson.
By the end of the day, the U.S. team had decided to switch from the high-tech suits to an older version for its next round of races today.
Kevin Haley, vice president of innovation for Under Armour, told The Associated Press that the Americans had received permission to go back to the Under Armour suits they used while posting impressive results on the fall World Cup circuit and at the U.S. Olympic trials in December.
“We want to put the athletes in the best possible position when they’re stepping on the ice to be 100 percent confident in their ability to capture a spot on the podium,” Haley said by phone from Baltimore.
The controversy flared up on Thursday when The Wall Street Journal, citing three people familiar with the U.S. team, reported that a vent on the back of the new suit, designed to allow heat to escape, was creating a drag on the racers. The concerns were aired after neither Davis nor Richardson finished higher than 7th in the 1,000-meter races.
During an interview with Bloomberg Television on Friday morning, Under Armour’s CEO Kevin Plank called the issue “a head scratcher.”
“We have a full team on the ground in Sochi right now making modifications and adjustments,” Plank said.
Plank said Under Armour worked with Lockheed Martin on the Mach 39 project, and used “everything from computational fluid dynamic modeling and wind-tunnel testing” to get the new suits built.
Ken Ross, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, said that aerospace engineers from Fort Worth were involved in the project.
“Lockheed Martin worked with Under Armour’s team to create a computational fluid dynamics model to analyze how air flows around the skater,” Lockheed said in a statement. “The work included small-scale wind tunnel testing in Lockheed Martin’s facilities of different skin materials and development of drag reduction concepts for prototype skins, following by drag testing of specific racing poses at the Glenn L. Martin Wind Tunnel at the University of Maryland.
“This was a unique collaboration,” the company said. “We’re proud to support the US speed skating team and look forward to seeing them on the medal stand in Sochi.”
He deferred other questions to Under Armour.
The Baltimore-based athletic apparel maker saw its stock (ticker: UA) slide on Friday by $2.58 a share, or 2.5 percent, to $106 as the story played out.
While continuing to express confidence in the new suit, Haley said Under Armour agreed to the change because a few athletes felt that it was affecting their times.
“If they have one less thing to be distracted by,” Haley said, “that should give them a little bit of an advantage.”
And while some on the team continued to back the new suit, the change was made to make sure all of the team members were comfortable. International rules require the entire team to wear the same suit.
“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is the most scientific suit in the whole world,” U.S. skater Patrick Meek told The Associated Press. “These guys make F-16 fighter jets. If they can invade Afghanistan and Iraq, they can build a speedskating suit.”