SOCHI -- The debate over U.S. Speedskating's puzzling, medal-free performance at the Sochi Games has grown to engulf its primary sponsor, Baltimore-based apparel company Under Armour, which supplied the U.S. team with a new skin suit, the "Mach 39," to controversial effect.
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Prior to the Games, Under Armour trumpeted the Mach 39 as the fastest suit in speedskating, giving an already proven U.S. team the boost needed to dominate the medal podium. While American skaters didn't use the Mach 39 in competition prior to the Olympics, they did test the suit in practice, and several skaters – like Shani Davis – played roles in its production, if only for fitting purposes.
"Under Armour is dedicated to providing the most innovative, state-of-the-art technology to our world-class athletes for competition in Sochi and in competition around the world," the company said in a statement.
Yet something is clearly wrong with U.S. Speedskating: Americans won four medals in 2010 and a combined 19 medals over the previous three Winter Games yet have failed to put a skater inside the top six of any event with four races left in the 2014 Sochi Games. The disappointment led the U.S. team to replace the Mach suits after six days of racing with the older version worn during the recent World Cup season.
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The company went on the defensive Monday. All of the uniforms in use here were tested "rigorously" to "ensure all of the athletes' needs are met and they can compete with zero distractions," said a statement released by Under Armour. "Multiple teams and athletes have medalled in World Cup events and global competition leading up to the Olympic Games and have won Olympic medals for their country during Sochi competition in Under Armour uniforms and products."
If an overly convenient excuse – U.S. skaters also finished out of the running in two events using older outfits – the suits have become, in essence, the perceived scapegoat for an athletic failure of Olympic proportions.
Under Armour is feeling the impact, which in turn has ramifications from this coastal city along the Black Sea to Wall Street, where the company's stock price fell 2.4% Friday; through Europe, where the company's international expansion strategy could be put to the test; and perhaps most noticeably in Kearns, Utah, the home of U.S. Speedskating.
Engineers developed the U.S. Olympic speed skating team suits in secret for two years. The suits are designed to optimize aerodynamics. Gannett - VPC
The company, which does only a small percentage of its business outside of North America, likely viewed this Olympic partnership as an opportunity to promote its brand on a global scale. In addition to its relationship with U.S. Speedskating, Under Armour sponsors members of the U.S. bobsled team, Canadian snowboard team, U.S. freestyle skiing team and members of the USA and Canadian hockey teams.
Under Armour also has a deep and meaningful relationship with skier Lindsey Vonn, a two-time Olympic medalist who stands as the company's most recognizable Winter Games athlete. But Vonn injured her right knee in November, costing her a shot at competing in Sochi.
The injury cost Under Armour one of its biggest stars; if Vonn had skied in the Games, her push for a medal could have shifted attention away from the company's much-debated missteps with the speedskating suits.
"The uniforms may or may not have made any difference at all from a physical standpoint, but for whatever reason they seemed to make a difference in what the athletes were thinking and feeling," U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun told USA TODAY Sports after the team's decision to switch to older suits.