Olympic speed skaters wear cutting edge suit, then lose

olympic speed skaters

At the top levels of athleticism, the difference a top performer and a superstar are measured in fractions of a second, tiny microscopic tweaks in technique, and perhaps a half an ounce of power in a blow.

Commentators and sports broadcasters often talk about just how insane the tiniest fraction of difference can make or break a match. This being the case, the demand on future athletes is something technology takes into consideration and offers compelling solutions to the up and coming to help gain that extra competitive advantage to take them to the heights they so desperately train for everyday. Often times for years.

Olympic Speedskating

The 2014 Sochi Olympic games set the stage for new technology. It was the debut of a speed skating suit developed by Lockheed Martin and Under Armor. An aerospace engineer and a team of scientists utilized 3D digital mapping to isolate just exactly where they felt they could cut the most drag for the skater.

The result was the Mach 39 Under Armour Suit. Before the suit debuted, it was spoken about as the “World’s fastest speed skating suit.” The U.S. Olympic speed skaters had performed well for the two prior Olympics bringing home a total of 19 medals between the two games; and at the Sochi games, they came home without one.

In fact, the skaters were commenting that their technique was being compromised by what were touted as state of the art ventilation areas to cut down on drag and they decided to go back to their former suits they wore in the prior games.

Now Cue the Talking Heads

So we as the fans are at a peculiar place, we are watching the feared U.S. speed skating team burn down on television, and in the days and months to follow, we see the VP’s of Under Armour and the heads of the research facility in Utah, where the suits were designed, explaining that the suits were rigorously tested and how it was the subjective opinion of the athletes that made them skate worse.

The classic battle is what the human experience of an event is versus the data collected in simulations. When you think about the recent movie Sully, the hearing that unfolds is an example that, though different from the ski suits, shows how data collected in simulations and real life are distinctly different.

On the one hand, the simulations show results that cannot be contradicted – the data points are there and they have been scrutinized, tested and re-tested. On the other hand, the actual human experience does not deliver the results derived in the simulations.

The athletes simply said, “These don’t feel very good.” And that’s all it takes. After all they are the one’s on the ice.

Final Thoughts

It is no secret that at top levels, athletes are looking for every advantage. The demand for better performance is a market for business. Experts, top scientists, sharp minds all gather together to create something revolutionary for the athlete and it then does not perform as expected.

This example in speed skating will not be the last one we see. The question that remains turn to a more philosophical point: How does one reconcile data tested products with the actual human experience of them? What happens when the divorce between what was tested and what was demonstrated live is so stark that we question which one was right…the human or the technology.