Men's and Women's Speedskating Olympics 2014: Examining Team USA Disappointments

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Men's and Women's Speedskating Olympics 2014: Examining Team USA Disappointments
Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

It wasn't the suits. That much we know for sure. Maybe it was the confidence lost by a poor start or the lack of comfort the skaters felt as they attempted to salvage their trip to Sochi. But when examining the surprising failures of the United States' speedskating team at the 2014 Olympics, the reality is we must first begin with the performers and the program itself.

The United States came roaring into Sochi with high hopes. The Associated Press (h/t Yahoo! Sports) had pegged the Americans as the favorites to win eight medals across men's and women's competition, more than any other country this side of the monolithic Netherlands. Two gold, four silver, two bronze.

They're facing the very real possibility of walking away with none. 

Shani Davis, the two-time defending 1,000-meter Olympic gold medalist, managed only an eighth-place finish. He fared even worse in the 1,500 meters, an event in which he has twice silver-medaled and holds the world record. Heather Richardson, the United States' best hope on the women's side, managed no better than a seventh-place finish in her three events.

Matt Dunham/Associated Press

Only two more individual events remain, the 10,000-meter men's competition and ladies' 5,000-meter race. The United States is, at best, considered a massive underdog to medal in both events.

While the men could grab a medal in team pursuit—the AP selected them as silver medalists—the prospect of individual medals is far-fetched. And considering how the United States has performed as a whole in Sochi, maybe the team pursuit medal is just as unlikely.

From start to finish, it's been an absolute mess of confusion, distractions and poor performances that has damaged the country's reputation within a sport it typically performs very well in.

Let's start with the suit, because it has become the overarching source of criticism stateside. Developed by Lockheed Martin, the high-tech race suits were supposed to be the height of aerodynamic excellence and give American skaters an advantage. Instead, athletes complained the suit hindered rather than helped and made the unprecedented call to return to old technology in hopes of reversing course.

At this level of speedskating, any minuscule advantage or hindrance can be the difference between gold and going home empty-handed. So it was understandable for the racers to want to make a switch.

It ultimately didn't matter. Whether it was a confidence factor or the Netherlands just hit the nail right on the head with suit technology, the results were no different. Still, some of the skaters expressed frustration about the effect the fiasco had on their runs. 

"There were just so many things going on, with what's going on with this, what's going on with that, what's got to happen here," Davis said, per Jared S. Hopkins of the Los Angeles Times. "I think if we could eliminate all those distractions and I could've just put that energy into performing and skating, it would've been a totally different outcome."

The suit issue raises numerous questions. On the surface, it's easy to write this off as sour grapes from frustrated athletes. They can't catch the Dutch, so of course the suit is holding them back. It couldn't possibly be a training issue or others performing better. Why, that would be absurd.

The thing is, even if the suits ultimately didn't matter from a results standpoint, the speedskating program never should have approved their use. As noted by the Wall Street Journal's Joshua Robinson and Sara Germano, the skaters never used the suits in competition pre-Sochi. The suits were completed so close to the Games, it was almost impossible to expect the competitors to feel comfortable.

Peter Dejong/Associated Press

Deciding to use the suits without competitive practice was questionable at best and irresponsible at worst. The last thing you want to be doing when competing on the Olympic level—something you have prepared the last four years for—is to be trying something new and uncomfortable.

It's ultimately silly to attribute the United States' struggles entirely to the suits. That's just a false justification. But as more folks come out and express their frustration, it's becoming clear that a chasm exists between decision-makers. 

In particular, the team's decision to train at high altitude in Collalbo, Italy, has drawn the ire of multiple people associated with the speedskating program. Nancy Swider-Peltz Sr., the coach of Brian Hansen, had enough mincing words in an interview with Kelly Whiteside and Paul Myerberg of USA Today:

Collalbo was a big mistake. I'm going to get in trouble for it, but I don't care anymore. I am tired of not being believed. I'm tired of being told that science is the only answer, that intuition and experience is not good enough. You can teach a person with intuition and experience science, but you can't teach a scientist to be a coach. It is something you learn from the very beginning.

The relationship between science and sport is an ongoing evolution across the world. Major professional sports leagues have invested millions upon millions of dollars on advanced analytics, and that is only going to grow going forward. Basketball and baseball analytics in particular have revolutionized not only the way teams judge talent but how they play.

Could those like Swider-Peltz merely be part of a resistant old garb holding back progress? It's not an unfair assertion. There are still those close to baseball who value RBI over WAR and folks in basketball who use points per game over per-possession metrics. Those people are wrong, of course, but as long as they're in positions of power, there is going to be a separation.

What is at fault for United States' speedskating troubles?

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Then again, it's pretty clear the technology and advancement failed in Sochi. The suits were scrapped. The skaters were slow on the more humid ice.

Ultimately, the only clear takeaway here is that the U.S. speedskating program needs a major powwow the moment it leaves Russia. There needs to be a clear game plan over the next four years. What events is it emphasizing. What advancements in suit technology it wants to push. Everything needs thrown in a cogent plan, one the skaters, national coaches and personal coaches understand and can get on board with.

Because if we've learned anything in Sochi, it's that a speedskating program in disarray is bound for failure—no matter what suit the athletes are wearing.

 

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