Under Armour defends suits blamed for slowing U.S. skaters

Maria Lamb of the U.S. skates in a Maria Lamb of the U.S. skates in a black suit after changing her official U.S. Speedskating team suit during a training session at the Adler Arena Skating Center at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. Photo Credit: AP /Matt Dunham

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Under Armour Inc., the sportswear maker sponsoring the U.S. speedskating team at the Winter Olympics, says it's "confident" in its skating suits after reports they're slowing down athletes at the Sochi Games.

The Baltimore-based company came under scrutiny for its suits after no American finished better than seventh place in the six speedskating events held as of Thursday night. The United States won four medals in speedskating in the 2010 Vancouver Games. Some have blamed a design flaw in the suits' rear ventilation panels, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier Friday, citing three unidentified people familiar with the U.S. team.

"The bottom line here is we're confident in all three of the suits we've provided to the U.S. speedskating team, and we're rooting for our athletes," Kevin Haley, Under Armour's senior vice president for innovation, said in an interview.

Under Armour had been on a roll. In the fourth quarter, the company boosted sales 35 percent to $682.8 million. That topped the average analyst estimate by 10 percent and marked 15 straight quarterly sales gains of more than 20 percent. To continue that pace, it's pushing overseas, highlighted by signing deals with soccer teams in Mexico, Chile and Britain.

"We are making changes right now with our team on the ground," Kevin Plank, Under Armour chief executive officer and founder, said today in an interview with Bloomberg Television. The company is OK with the athletes switching to a different brand's suits if they want to, he said.

Plank dismissed the suggestion that the reports would slow international expansion or damage a brand that has been built and marketed as being technically advanced. Under Armour currently generates about 95 percent of its sales in the U.S.

"Everyone should take a deep breath, and see how everything turns out," Plank said. "Let us let the athletes get out there and see what happens."

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Kip Carpenter, the U.S. skating coach, isn't publicly blaming Under Armour.

A skater doesn't lose a second in the 1,000-meter race "because of a skin suit," Carpenter told reporters. "Anyone who thinks that, does not know speed skating. In my opinion, the Dutch are just sitting deeper and pushing harder. They are just skating better than us."

The Netherlands is one medal away from matching its record Olympic haul after a dominating showing in Sochi, where the Dutch have won four of the first five competitions and claimed 10 of 15 medals available so far

Under Armour removed the ventilation panels for all four women before the 1000-meter race and didn't see any difference in times, Haley said. The "vast majority" of adjustments to the suits have been for comfort, Haley said.

"The organization is reaching the conclusion it's not the suits," he said. "The bottom line is there are multiple variables that go into the final result, and because these are great athletes who have given everything they have to train for this event for the last four years, everyone is searching for answers to the the question of why haven't these athletes stepped up on the podium."

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