Amid consistently disappointing results across all distances and skaters, U.S. speed skating is searching for answers for the team’s worst Olympics showing in 30 years.
The U.S. was favoured in multiple events coming into the Olympics. But with eight of the 12 speed skating events completed, the Americans haven’t won a single medal.
So what’s going on?
Initially, the popular theory was that the team’s new, high-tech Under Armour suits had a design flaw that hadn’t been spotted because the suit was never tested in competition.
But the team switched back to an old suit on Saturday, and U.S. skaters still came up empty.
An article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel floated the most convincing theory yet — the U.S. underperforms on sea-level ovals like Sochi’s because they insist on training at altitude.
From the Sentinel:
“One source close to the U.S. team said the aerobic benefit of training at altitude and the speeds attained by the skaters on fast ice didn’t outweigh the benefit of preparing for slow ice by training on it. And statistics certainly seem to back up that claim.
“Over the past five years, U.S. skaters have won 56 medals in 128 World Cup races at altitude tracks (44%) and 104 medals in 398 races at sea-level tracks (26%).
“‘They skate night and day different at sea level,’ the source wrote in an email.”
The U.S. held its pre-Olympics training camp on a high-altitude, outdoor track in Collalbo, Italy. Exercising at altitude trains the body to produce more red blood cells, which increases stamina when the athlete competes at sea-level.
But speed skating at altitude is much different than it is at sea-level. Inside Science explains:
“Due to the near-sea-level elevation, the air at the speed skating oval in Sochi is denser than at venues with higher elevations. That dense air means higher air resistance against fast-moving objects, like a speed skater. That high air resistance works against a speed skater, requiring the skater to exert more effort to reach and maintain the same speed as in a location with lower air resistance.
“A skater could give the same performance in terms of effort and technique, but go faster at a higher elevation.”
So while altitude training has its benefits, you can’t simulate the effort needed to skate a gold-medal time on sea-level ice if you’re training at altitude.
It sounds convincing, but U.S. coach Ryan Shimabukuro dismissed that theory in the strongest possible terms in an interview with the Salt Like Tribune.
He said that U.S. skaters had “set track records all over the world at sea level,” and called the source of the theory “a pothead.”
“I’m going to squash this right now. We used the same set-up for the Collalbo camp going into [the 2006 Turin Olympics] with a lot of success — with Shani Davis. Number two, there were other countries there, other teams there that were in Collalbo at the same time that are having success here, as well.”
Still, something is clearly wrong. All of the U.S. skaters are slower than anticipated, and this theory is at least a plausible explanation for how that could happen.
The last time the U.S. failed to medal in speed skating was in 1984.
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