Lindsey Vonn race suit: How big an advantage at Vancouver Olympics?

Lindsey Vonn race suit: Vonn, Bode Miller, and the rest of the skiers on the USA and Canada teams are wearing an ultra-fast race suit at the Vancouver Olympics designed by Spyder, whose previous super-suit was banned for being unfair.

Luca Bruno/AP
Lindsey Vonn race suit: US skier Lindsey Vonn speeds down the course on her way to win the bronze medal in the Women's super-G, at the Vancouver Olympics Saturday.

Lindsey Vonn is blazing through the Vancouver Olympics wearing her sport’s most cutting-edge race suit.

But she and her USA teammates may come under scrutiny for it.

The maker of their uniforms, Colorado-based company Spyder, designed previous ultra-fast suits worn by several Americans as they won world racing titles in the 1990s. Those suits were ultimately banned because they gave an unfair advantage.

Calling to mind the Michael Phelps-Speedo swimsuit controversy from the Beijing 2008 Olympics, this year the US and Canadian ski teams are wearing so-called “slippery suits,” designed and engineered by Spyder with British design company d3o at a total estimated cost of $500,000.

“Remember the Speedo swimsuit in Beijing that garnered criticism because it allowed swimmers to be so much faster in the water?” Spyder spokesperson Hillary Procknow told CNBC. “We are hoping to create similar buzz behind the new suit Spyder spent so much time engineering.”

What’s so special about them? It’s all about the stitching.

High-tech armor

They’re seamless, almost like a uniform of goo. The key ingredient in the uniform is a liquid known as shear thickening fluid, which is used in soldiers’ body armor. The d3o ingredient is normally soft and flexible, but it hardens upon impact, which offers protection when skiers like Bode Miller slam through the racing gates.

"By reducing pad volume by 40 percent, the suit system is more aerodynamic due to its lower profile and a lack of abrupt edges, which can ‘catch’ wind,” according to a company press release.

More importantly, the super-suit makes you faster.

“Spyder claims it could shave as much as a second off a racer’s time, a huge chunk in a sport where podium spots are often decided by hundredths,” reports the Associated Press. If Spyder's suits truly are shaving a full second off skiers' times, they can be credited for helping bring in a number of US medals.

Lindsey Vonn and US teammate Julia Mancuso took gold and silver in ladies downhill just ahead of two Austrian skiers, who both were less than 1 second behind Mancuso. In the ladies' super-G, 0.11 seconds separated bonze-medalist Vonn from fourth-place.

And in the men’s super-G, less than 1 second separated both silver-medalist Bode Miller from 18th place. Miller won gold in the combined in less than 1 second, and he won bronze in the downhill in less than one-tenth of 1 second. (Miller, for his part, says he's winning because he's skiing like a kid again.) 

Tinkering with your uniform

Miller is known to experiment with the newest technologies. He tinkers with his own skis for enhanced performance, and uses special arm guards.

Other Olympics athletes are more interested in the newest designs for mere fashion. Spyder designed eight unique uniforms for Lindsey Vonn, one representing each past World Cup event she's won, according to a Spyder press release, which said the custom suits “incorporate patterns, plaids, and vibrant colors that Vonn finds appealing.”

Snowboarders, meanwhile, have been competing in faux-jeans with a faux-sag (the pants just look sagged, because of the stitching).

Past controversies

Fashion aside, hi-tech suits that give an athlete a competitive advantage have garnered controversy.

In the mid-1990s, Spyder built a suit called SpeedWyre, which incorporated a “tripwire” into the surface that reduced aerodynamic drag and created a more streamlined flow. American skiers Picabo Street and Hillary Lindh both won World Championships in it. Complaints followed, and the International Ski Federation (FIS) banned the SpeedWyre suit.

In the Beijing Summer Olympics, the US Swim Team came under scrutiny for its special Speedo suits.

The swimsuit controversy continued into 2009. At the world championships last July, the German swimmer Paul Biedermann broke the 400-meter freestyle world record while wearing the polyurethane Arena X-Glide, which was a notch above Michael Phelps’s own NASA-consulted Speedo LZR Racer. Biedermann improved his time 4 seconds from Beijing and beat Phelps in the race.

FINA, the international governing body for swimming, has voted to ban the polyurethane suits, though the enforcement date is unsettled. Following the swimsuit controversy, the New York Times offered input from six leading swimming, tennis, and bicycling experts.

“You want to ensure that athletes from affluent backgrounds or countries don’t have an unfair advantage over other players and win only because of superior equipment,” said Martina Navratilova, the world’s former No. 1 women’s tennis player.

The US Ski Team, for its part, hasn’t seemed to mind the attention.

“It's the Louis Vuitton of suits, made with precision and quality,” American downhiller Steven Nyman told the AP.


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