Anyone who thought the Cold War ended a few decades ago would be surprised at what is going down at the speed skating track at the Sochi Olympics. There is secrecy, spy craft, and nations playing mind games with each other. The United States has even employed a military contractor.
The quest for velocity in speed skating has driven the rivalry between countries to new heights at these Winter Olympics. While the Games are always a showcase for innovation, science and gadgetry, no matter what the sport, short-track and long-track speed skating are locked in a particularly heated technological race.
The Americans fired the first salvo a week before the Olympics, unveiling a skin-tight bodysuit for its long-track skaters dubbed the Mach 39. The aerodynamically engineered suit is a collaboration between sportswear manufacturer Under Armour Inc. and defence contractor Lockheed Martin.
That's right, Lockheed Martin, the military supplier that produces the F-35 fighter jet and the Trident ballistic missile made for launching from submarines.
The Mach 39 arrived at the Olympics under a shroud of secrecy – U.S. speed skating officials refused to let their athletes wear it this season, worried the innovations would leak before Sochi. When U.S. gold medal contender Shani Davis took to the ice for a training session on Wednesday, skaters from other countries were stealing furtive glances at his uniform. Was that it? Was that the Mach 39? No one knew. They had never seen one before.
The suit, moulded with a rough texture designed to disrupt the air like the dimples on a golf ball, is said to make the skaters faster in a way no country has attempted before. And judging by the buzz in Russia, the bumpy surface was not just shrink-wrapped onto Mr. Davis on Wednesday – it was also squarely in the heads of his competitors.
But over on the short-track circuit, Canada's skaters were touting the scientific benefits of their new gear, although sworn to secrecy on what precisely those advantages were.
Asked about the new "skin suits," Canadian short-track officials offered confirmation that they are indeed fast, and packed with innovation, but they could not say much more.
"This is part of the secret behind the performance," said Canada's short-track speed skating program director, Yves Hamelin. "So I won't go far."
Does it have a name, like the Mach 39?
"We named it Aero-Suit, for aerodynamic," Mr. Hamelin said.
Designed in Ottawa, the suits have a micro-thin Kevlar base layer strong enough to prevent skate blades from cutting through them – important in a sport known for roller derby-style pile-ups – but are also flexible and breathable for maximum acceleration and body heat management. Unlike the Mach 39, the suit is smooth – like shark skin – to reduce friction, yet stretchy and comfortable, with strategically placed seams that allow the short trackers to move freely. The fabric – a special proprietary knit – is also designed to retain its shape over multiple races, so it performs the same way every time.
But really, how good can it be?
"It's the best suit ever," Mr. Hamelin said.
It would not be the Olympics without a little hyperbole. But the quest for the most scientific equipment is about more than defying physics. It is also a form of trash talk.
If you believe you have a fast uniform, you feel faster. Make other countries think their suit is inferior and doubt creeps into their performance. It is both mental and physical intimidation.
"We play on different things," Mr. Hamelin said. "It's more than only the feel of having that advantage; we clearly feel that everything together creates such a difference."
In speed skating, victory can be decided by hundredths of seconds. So any advantage is crucial. Ultra-slippery fabrics that cut down on the rub between a skater's thighs were among the innovations talked about most in 2010 at the Vancouver Olympics. Today, virtually all suits have them.
Using wind tunnels and computers to help tailor suits precisely to an athlete's every muscle is also the standard now.
But Lockheed Martin's contribution has brought a new – and unproven – theory on how to make skaters faster. Dubbed "flow moulding," the four-millimetre bumps on the suit are designed to disrupt air flow. For decades, long-track suits have been about sleekness and smooth texture to cut down on wind resistance the way a race car would.
Too many victories by athletes in the new suit could lead to trouble. The hype surrounding the Mach 39 has raised the debate over so-called technological doping, a term popularized at the 2008 Summer Olympics when the full-body LZR Racer swimsuit made its debut and competitors wearing it dominated the pool. Designed by NASA, that swim suit included ultra-sonically welded seams that were said to help muscle oxygenation.
Coincidentally – or not – more than 90 per cent of winners at those Olympics wore the LZR Racer, including U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, who set seven world records. The suit was banned in 2009.
Still, the Mach 39 and the other top-secret uniforms countries have brought to Sochi have a long way to go before they reach the LZR's legendary status. First, the Mach 39 has to win races. As do the high-tech suits Canada's long-track skaters are wearing.
Standing in her black Team Canada uniform after training on Wednesday, speed skater Christine Nesbitt said the suit her team is wearing in Sochi, made by Quebec company Apogee Inc., fits better than the one she wore to win a gold medal in Vancouver.
"The quality is improving every single time they come out with a new suit," Ms. Nesbitt said. "That's just so important for our sport, with the aerodynamics involved."
But Ms. Nesbitt is skeptical about the role a speed skating suit can play. It helps, but it doesn't guarantee victory.
"You know, I don't think that's important," she said. "I've got the suit, and now I have to skate well. The suit doesn't skate well for you."