Skaters hope super suits give them golden edge
SOCHI, Russia — Forget about the sharpest blades and think "tightest suit" instead. For nations like the Netherlands and the United States, those skintight suits could provide the edge to top the Olympic speedskating medals table.
No wonder the sartorial arms race heats up before every Olympics.
"It is a psychological game," said Bert van der Tuuk, who designed the top suits for the Dutch and Russian teams.
But he says there is science involved too — every four years, there are improvements over the suits that won previous Olympic titles. How much though, remains up for heated debate.
"The difference between winning and losing is partly determined by clothing," the Dutch skater turned suit designer said in an interview with The Associated Press.
In a sport where margins of victory are sometimes measured in hundredths of seconds, a little less drag, a bit of fabric that keeps a skater in the perfect position, might be just enough to make the difference between a golden glow and obscurity.
For Ireen Wust, the Dutch double gold medalist from Turin 2006 and the Vancouver Games four years ago, the feeling that she is well taken care of, gives her the peace of mind to disregard the whole issue.
"I don't spend energy on subjects like that, because I cannot change it and it won't bother me," she said after a training session in the orange-and-blue Dutch suit.
No nation matches the Netherlands' relentless commitment to speedskating and the country often has the medal tally to prove it.
But when the Olympics roll around, it is the United States that often puts up the toughest battle. That applies to their suits too — with some hyperbole thrown in.
"THE FASTEST SPEEDSKATING SUIT IN THE WORLD," was how the Under Armour company described the Mach 39 American suit, developed together with the U.S. aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin.
It has the U.S. skaters convinced.
"It's definitely helpful thinking that you have the fastest skin. It's a confidence booster," said Brian Hansen, who will compete in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters.
He said the skinsuit has special rivets, seams, bumps and even a diagonal zipper to improve speed. He acknowledges though that it is so tight on some skaters it feels like it restricts their breathing.
Van der Tuuk is not impressed.
"They claim to have the fastest suit, but they haven't tested our suit yet," he said. Van der Tuuk said he tried some of the elements used in the U.S. suit but rejected them as adding no value.
No American was complaining about their suit in the run-up to Saturday's opening race, the men's 5,000. And Jilleanne Rookard was convinced the U.S. team has the edge.
"I did notice that the Dutch had a similar technology," she said. "We still have a couple advantages that they don't." What are those? "I'm not really allowed to talk about anything super specific," she said.
Wust, in her third Olympics with a third, improved, suit to go with it, is counting on her own sheer power and speed.
"Even if they really have a very fast suit, I still want to beat them," she said.
AP Sports Writer Beth Harris contributed to this story.