SOCHI, Russia — Amid a contentious battle over whether a suit designed by Under Armour is leading to slower times from America's top speed skaters, U.S. Speedskating has received permission from the International Olympic Committee to switch back to the suits used during the recent World Cup season.
"For the remainder of the Winter Olympic Games, Team USA speedskaters will be wearing the previously-approved Under Armour skin suits used during recent World Cup competition," U.S. Speedskating President Mike Plant said in a statement.
These World Cup suits — also worn by skaters during the Olympic trials, and also designed by Under Armour — are in Sochi, as one of three suits supplied to U.S. Speedskating by the apparel company in advance of the Games.
To make the change, the entire U.S. team has to change. The organization's decision comes after the new Under Armour suit — called the "Mach 39" — came under heavy scrutiny for perceived designed flaws, notably a panel of mesh fabric on the back that skaters worried was creating excess drag.
While American skaters have not placed blame on the new suit for the team's disappointing performance at the Winter Games, one skater, Heather Richardson, did ask for a slight alteration to the mesh panel prior to her seventh-place finish in the women's 1,000 meters.
"They did adjust one part on the back, but it was just putting rubber over the mesh there," Richardson said, adding, "It had no effect, really."
"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 in the statement. "Under Armour's mission is to make all athletes better, and they are working tirelessly with Team USA to ensure each athlete steps on the ice with 100 percent confidence so they are positioned to capture a spot on the podium. U.S. Speedskating is proud of its long-term, successful partnership with Under Armour, and we all look forward to the upcoming races."
Under Armour outfitted the U.S. Speedskating team with three different suits, Kevin Haley, the company's senior vice president for innovation, told USA TODAY Sports.
One suit is the Mach 39, which has been used in each event by the overwhelming majority of skaters. The second is identical to the Mach 39 with one slight change, a removal of the "higher-tech folded shapes" from the original. It was worn by one racer in the men's 1,000 meters with no noticeable change in time, Haley said.
"We're happy to make the skaters as confident as they can be by letting them use whatever suit they want," Haley said.
The third are the World Cup suits.
"It's a suit that we have total confidence in," Haley said. "They've performed well in it in the past."
But Haley added that Under Armour testing has shown the Mach 39 suit, and its near-doppelganger, have tested faster in the past — if only by hundreds of tenths of a second.
"When you're dealing with the margins that you're dealing with, it's more important to put the skater in a suit that the skater feels comfortable in and confident in," he said. "We're confident that all of the suits have shown the ability for athletes to skate fast in them."
Star U.S. skaters Shani Davis and Brian Hansen are back on the ice on Saturday in the men's 1,500 meters.