Written By | Jeff Barker
Under Armour and U.S. speedskaters hoped the 2018 Winter Olympics would be all about the gold — as in medals — especially after a disappointing showing four years ago.
Tarnished by the lack of results in 2014, the Baltimore-based athletic apparel brand that designed the skaters’ uniforms aimed to help the athletes redeem themselves in South Korea.
With the games entering their final week, what people are noticing instead is silver — not medals, but the gray-silver color popping out of a certain area of the otherwise navy blue body of the speedskating suits.
Under Armour designed the uniforms, known as “skins,” with the striking, contrasting color around the crotch. The brand said the two panels are made of material designed to significantly reduce friction, helping the skaters move faster.
Unlike in 2014, when the skaters voted to stop using their new Under Armour skins, the brand’s image isn’t likely to take a hit from this peccadillo, several analysts said.
But it would help if the skaters would begin to excel in what is left of the Games, said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.
“The bigger problem is they’ve got one friggin’ medal,” Dorfman said. “The onus is on the skaters themselves.”
So far in Pyeongchang, the nation’s lone speedskating medal has come when John-Henry Krueger took home the silver in a short-track event, the men’s 1,000 meters.
The long-track speedskaters have not won any medals but will compete this week in a number of races, including ladies’ team pursuit, men’s 1,000 meters and the mass start events.
The long-trackers didn’t win any medals in the 2014 Games and voted to ditch the “Mach 39” suits midway through the games for an older Under Armour model. Some long-track skaters worried that a mesh panel in the back of the suit — designed as a vent for “breathability”— was creating drag.
But the U.S. speedskating federation ultimately didn’t blame the suits for the team’s performance and gave the company a vote of confidence by renewing its partnership with the brand for the 2018 and 2022 Olympics.
There have been no complaints from the American team members in South Korea about the performance of this year’s uniforms. They combine several materials, including a proprietary fabric called H1 that runs down the arms and legs.
The jokes about the suits’ “crotch spots” or “crotch circles” are reminiscent of the ribbing the company took in 2016 over the look of a sneaker Under Armour designed for basketball star Stephen Curry.
Curry’s vanilla-looking shoe inspired such snarky nicknames as “Dad shoes” and “mall walkers.” The wave of Twitter-fueled derision about the Curry Two Low “Chef” model might have been embarrassing initially, but the shoe not only survived the criticism but scored popularity points and profits.
Unlike the Curry sneaker, the racing skins aren’t aimed at the public at large.
“Since the suits were never intended for consumer use it gives the company an excellent opportunity to reinforce their overall story and brand promise,” said T.J. Brightman, president of A. Bright Idea, a public relations and marketing firm with offices in Bel Air and California.
“Under Armour has created their brand and made it about performance for the athlete since their inception,” Brightman said. “While the design is a bit odd and is generating some jokes on social media, it’s more about staying true to the athlete in this case and the Olympic speedskating team to create a suit that enhances performance.”
While the racing suits’ design may be attention-grabbing, Under Armour said using different material in the crotch area “has been commonplace for speedskate skins for decades, to reduce friction.”
It said the Olympic athletes “love the look of the skins and how they perform, and are getting compliments from other countries.”
The skins’ design evolved from one Olympics to the next.
“The 2014 UA skin had one panel instead of two, but in testing the new skin, the addition of a second panel reduced friction even more — by 60 percent,” the company said in written statement.
Under Armour said the goal was finding the material to produce the fastest suit.
“We tested a multitude of friction guard materials to find the material that reduces friction the most,” the company said. “Altering the color or using a material that comes in a different color would have rendered it considerably less effective.”