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June 2012
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ICED Olympians, being humans, sometimes simply get beat

Today being Saturday, which is most people's day off, we choose to opine on a controversy appropriately inconsequential; to wit, what on earth happened to the U.S. Olympic speedskating team?

If you have followed the Winter Olympics in Sochi at all, you by now know that the heavily favored U.S. team had as of late this week drawn a blank in the medals. The team, having been very successful in World Cup competition leading up to the Olympic Games, came to Sochi with the latest American secret weapon: the Mach 39 speedskating suit. The never-before-used (which in retrospect might not have been such a good idea) secret suits were developed by Under Armour, with the help of defense contractor Lockheed Martin - maker of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, among other things that go fast.

But the Mach 39 apparently did not go fast. At least that was the conclusion of American athletes, who after failing to put a skater in the top six of any event in the first week of competition blamed drag from the suits. That was not good news for Under Armour, which saw its stock pounded on the New York Stock Exchange following the news. Problem is, after the U.S. speedskaters switched back to their World Cup suits (also made by Under Armour), they didn't do any better.

Instead the team watched as the Netherlands claimed 21 speedskating medals, the most any team has ever won in a single sport in any Winter Olympics. Asked about the Mach 39 controversy, Netherlands Coach Jillert Anema quipped, "We have found something that makes the suit very fast. It's the man in the suit."

U.S. skater Joey Mantia had a similar analysis of the Dutch success: "They're skating faster than everyone else, obviously."

But how could this be? We are, after all, the nation of Eric Heiden, who in 1980 in Lake Placid won five individual speedskating gold medals, more than Finland, Norway, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined.

Anema, the Dutch Coach, provided what to us is a logical answer: "American speedskating depends on gifted skaters - (a) very few. They have to work on their own and they have a lack of competition. They have a lack of support. Once in four years America(ns) will all go and watch skating and then you need to bring medals home, but in the few years before (that) they are not supported and you need the support, you need the competition â ¦"

In the Netherlands, Anema says, there are basically two sports, speedskating and soccer, so it is natural that those are the sports in which the Dutch would excel.

"You don't ask why a basketball team comes and beats the (expletive) out of us in the summer Olympics," Anema said, in an interview with CNBC. "It's because you have so many teams."

U.S. coach Ryan Shimabukuro basically concurred, noting that speedskating is a "very, very tiny sport" in the U.S. Of past U.S. medals, he said, "I equate it to this: when a Dutch baseball player comes to the United States and throws a no-hitter in Game 7 of the World Series, that's the comparison."

For our part, if the difference between winning and losing in speedskating or any other Olympic sport were determined by who had the highest-tech of the high-tech suits, we wouldn't call that a sport. And as for the U.S. speedskating team, given the odds they face and the lack of support they get at home, we're just grateful to have athletes who work so hard to represent out nation every four years. American speedskaters won four medals in 2010 and a combined 19 medals over the past three Winter Games. Given the challenges they face, American sports fans should be plenty proud of that record.

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