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Volume 21 No. 26

Olympics

Under Armour has worked closely with U.S. Speedskating for four years to turn around the disappointing performance in the 2014 Sochi Games.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
On Feb. 14, 2014, the U.S. Speedskating team was struggling through its worst Winter Olympics in 30 years. Not only were the medals elusive, it had a business problem, too: Athletes voted mid-Games to abandon high-tech suits developed by sponsor Under Armour after a front-page Wall Street Journal article blamed the suits for the slow times.

From Sochi, Speedskating President Mike Plant tried urgently to contact Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank, certain the company would have no interest in renewing its contract after the Games.

Plant spoke to Plank three times in less than a week: First an apology from Sochi (officials say the suits weren’t the problem); then a check-in from the Kiev airport as he returned home; and a third time, Plank reached Plant in his Park City, Utah, kitchen.

That last time, Plank had made a decision: “I’m not going to renew for four years,” he said, as Plant recalls. “I’m going to renew for eight. I’m going to provide more money, more resources, more tech, more support, and we’re going to go over to Korea and kick some you-know-what.”

Four years later, neither U.S. Speedskating nor Under Armour are making any promises about exactly how much you-know-what they’ll kick at the Pyeongchang Games next month. But the Olympics mark a critical redemption opportunity, for both one of the United States’ traditionally strongest Winter Olympic sports and a high-performance brand equally eager to prove Sochi was an aberration.

They’re doing things differently this time around. In hindsight, almost everything about the speedskating team’s preparations for Sochi was wrong. An internal review found flaw with the team’s extensive travel schedule, its decision to train at an outdoor, high-altitude facility in Italy for the sea-level indoor Olympics, and the plan to introduce Under Armour’s Mach 39 suits just weeks before the Games.

This year, there are no late changes. Athletes have been in Under Armour suits since last February, allowing them to get comfortable and tinker if necessary.

Since Sochi, Under Armour’s innovations team has developed more than 100 different fabrics and tried them in 250 different designs, including more than 100 hours of wind-tunnel testing with Specialized, a California-based cycling company that concentrates on athlete aerodynamics.

“We’re just trying to eliminate all potential variables and make sure they have something that is exactly what they want,” said Kevin Haley, Under Armour’s executive vice president of strategy. Rather than aim for a medal count, Under Armour wants to avoid the perception that it’s not meeting a customer’s needs.

“We don’t look at it through the lens of expectations,” Haley said. “We just want to know we’ve done everything possible to support the athletes and to support U.S. Speedskating over the last four years to make them better.”

The trauma of 2014 drove the partners closer together under a shared goal of fixing the problems, and now speedskating is Under Armour’s closest Olympic sport relationship, company officials say, along the lines of its Notre Dame and other major college sponsorships.

Paul Winsper, Under Armour vice president of athlete performance, has worked closely with speedskating’s sport science director, Shane Domer, to improve the team in ways that have little to do with the apparel. They created a minute-by-minute schedule for a 10-day training camp, brought in Navy SEALs to develop teamwork skills, and a tai chi master to advise on breathing and meditation. Under Armour also tapped Jens Voigt, a retired Tour de France cyclist, to lead the elite skaters on a series of grueling bike rides through California to build endurance.

U.S. Speedskating Executive Director Ted Morris, hired just five months before the Sochi Games after a long period of turmoil in the sport’s front office, said over-promising was part of the problem in 2014 and says he doesn’t feel pressure to meet a target.

“This is an incredibly successful NGB, and the 2002-06-10 run was amazing,” Morris said of the three Winter Olympics in which the U.S. won a combined 31 speedskating medals. “We over-delivered for a very long time, and in 2014 we came away with only one medal — our understanding is it might change to two after ongoing doping investigations — so I don’t see us necessarily having to prove anything to anybody.”

U.S. speedskaters only won one medal in Sochi wearing Under Armour‘s high-tech Mach 39 suits.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
There’s good reason to believe the medal count will be improved from 2014, the first time the long-track team was shut out since 1984 (a silver in the men’s 5,000-meter short-track relay was the only American podium appearance). The team will be led in Pyeongchang by women’s sprinter Heather Bergsma, who is hoping for personal redemption from 2014. Gracenotes Sports projects Bergsma will be the “star of the U.S. Winter Olympic team” with two gold medals and a bronze. Other medal contenders include Joey Mantia and returning veteran Shani Davis on the men’s side.

Morris added: “Clearly we want to win some medals, but most importantly we want our team to come away saying, ‘Man, what a great experience, and I’ve skated the best I’ve ever skated.’”

But for a small NGB like speedskating, a second consecutive Olympics without a big headline could damage recruiting. In the U.S., speedskating has always depended more on transcendent individuals like Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair than a deep talent pool, and it doesn’t take long for Olympic sports to lose television coverage, awareness and interest if Americans aren’t consistently competitive. Under Armour is helping there, too, pledging as part of its 2014 renewal to fund a grassroots talent identification program.

Matt Powell, a senior industry analyst at NPD Group, said Under Armour has little to lose in Pyeongchang. The Sochi suits storyline was an “embarrassment,” he said, but one that ultimately had little impact on its business. Now, after a tough 2017 that saw Under Armour’s stock price cut in half, the company has bigger issues to address and might even see some upside in Korea.

“If anything, if they come back and the U.S. skaters do well, there’s something of a feel-good moment for Under Armour as well after what ended up being a very tough year for them,” Powell said.