Wednesday, December 20, 2017

What’s the Fastest Color? Olympic Speedskaters Now Say Blue

Lee Sang-hwa of South Korea, left, Havard Holmefjord Lorentzen of Norway, center, and Moritz Geisreiter of Germany at a World Cup competition last month in Stavanger, Norway. At the 2014 Winter Olympics, South Korea wore a darker shade of blue, Norway wore red and Germany wore black. CreditPhotographs by Carina Johansen/NTB scanpix
STAVANGER, Norway — Olympic-caliber speedskaters sometimes race for more than six miles, and gold medals can be determined by hundredths of a second. Countries that take the sport seriously have looked for every possible scientific advantage, from the composition of the hinge that connects the skate blade to the boot to the aerodynamics of hoods on racing suits.
In the months leading up to the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, some of the sport’s biggest powers seem to be under the sway of a new and far less scientifically rigorous belief about their equipment: Blue is the fastest color.
Speedskating fans and competitors were bemused recently when skaters from three countries — Germany, Norway and South Korea — showed up to the first World Cup event of the season wearing new uniforms in a suspiciously similar shade of blue. South Korea has historically worn blue. Germany and Norway have not.
The attire was particularly jarring for Norway, whose long history of speedskating prowess has been attained in red — always in red. Norway has won 80 speedskating medals at the Olympics, behind only the 105 won by the Netherlands. It was as if the Yankees had showed up at the baseball playoffs in polka dots rather than pinstripes.
“The Norwegians’ whole history is with the legendary red suits,” said Hein Otterspeer, a sprint specialist from the Netherlands, who reported hearing the same rumors as everyone else at the World Cup races in Stavanger, Norway. “People are saying now the blue color is faster than any other color. That’s a bit of a strange theory, but maybe they tested it, and it went better than the red suit.”
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With any new piece of equipment, there is an assumption that it has been tested, tested again and tested some more. At ice rinks, laboratories and wind tunnels around the world, the top countries are engaged in a hush-hush arms race, a different sort of cold war. Lockheed Martin Aeronautics was involved in the development of the racing suits worn by the United States at the last Winter Games.
Every so often, there are revolutionary innovations in materials, design or construction. Sometimes, there are flops, like the suit worn by the Americans in 2014 — the grandiosely named, and ultimately underperforming, Mach 39 from Under Armour — featuring a dimpled, vented material.
But the notion that certain colors could be faster than others? Some skaters found it preposterous. Others accepted it. Many were just confused.
“They said it skates a little faster than red, so I like to believe that,” Hege Bokko, a Norwegian skater, said after stepping off the ice last month in the team’s new blue suit.
But what does that mean, exactly?
“I have no clue,” she said, smiling. “The Koreans and Germans are also skating in blue, so maybe it’s something.”
Never mind the fancy scientists who scratched their heads at the premise.
“I have come to a point in my life that I have sufficient confidence in what I’ve done and what I know, but at the same time I’m not so arrogant to dismiss claims people make,” said Renzo Shamey, a professor of color science and technology at North Carolina State University, which has a leading textiles program.
“Having said that, based on my knowledge of dye chemistry, I cannot possibly imagine how dyeing the same fabric with two dyes that have the same properties to different hues would generate differing aerodynamic responses.”
Chris Needham, an equipment technician for the United States team and former national team skater, said the discussion reminded him of a conversation he had with a ski jumper years ago at the Olympic training center in Lake Placid, N.Y. When Needham asked why so many ski jumpers seemed to be wearing orange suits, the jumper replied, “It flies better.”
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Johann Olav Koss winning gold for Norway at the 1994 Winter Games. “The Norwegians’ whole history is with the legendary red suits,” said Hein Otterspeer, a speedskater from the Netherlands.CreditSimon Bruty/Getty Images
This sort of matter-of-factness about junk science was echoed in Norway.
“It’s been proven that blue is faster than other colors,” said Dai Dai Ntab, a sprint specialist for the Netherlands. “Every Olympic season, everybody is trying to find the hidden gem. This year it’s the blue suits.”
Ntab seemed at least half-serious as he continued: “At the end of the day, winning is the biggest goal, so if it’s faster to skate in the blue, I think Holland should consider changing.”
Some in the sport wondered if the Norwegians were playing mind games with their competitors. In speedskating, posturing is as common as actual technological progress.
“I look at that as the oldest trick in the book,” Mike Crowe, the coach of the Canadian team, said about the color switch and ensuing intrigue. “It’s just gamesmanship, really. Make them doubt. Make them wonder.”
In a fireside interview at the rink, Havard Myklebust, the sports scientist leading Norway’s secret suit development effort, seemed amused at the attention the uniforms had garnered over the past few weeks. He hinted that overeager Norwegian journalists might have played a role in the proliferation of this new color theory.
And still, he seemed content to let the speculation simmer. He demurred when asked whether his team’s research had shown color alone could affect the aerodynamics of a material. He stuck to tantalizing generalities.
“What I’ve said is, our new blue suit is faster than our old red suit,” he said with a tight smile, “and I stand by that.”
Skaters, for the sake of their sanity, seemed disinclined to pay too much attention to the subtleties of a suit. Still, they acknowledged that confidence, in oneself and one’s gear, was crucial. Feeling fast can help you go fast.
The psychology of a suit, then, can be just as important as its physics.
Stephen Westland, a professor of color science at the University of Leeds in England, said that despite the implausibility of a link between color and suit physics, a large body of research showed that color could affect performance from a purely psychological standpoint.
“Sporting participants wearing some colors may feel more confident or powerful,” Westland said. “And opponents may infer qualities about their opponents that depend upon which colors they are wearing.”
The Olympics in South Korea will be the first time Norway’s speedskaters will wear proprietary uniforms rather than suits from a mass producer. Myklebust said the overall goal of his two-year project, nicknamed Top Speed, was to engineer a suit that could subtract eight one-hundredths of a second per lap.
It may be too early to tell whether the Norwegians achieved that goal — or whether their new blue uniforms have made them faster. But for what it’s worth, a Norwegian skater, Havard Holmefjord Lorentzen, was leading the men’s overall World Cup standings last week.
“We just decided we needed to take a bit more responsibility for our racing suits than just buying them from a supplier somewhere,” said Jeremy Wotherspoon, the sprint coach for the Norwegian team.
That seemed fair enough, but there were more pressing questions: What about the color?
Wotherspoon smiled, unfolded his arms and pointed to the hat he was wearing, which bore the logo of a Norwegian seafood company that sponsors the team. It was a familiar shade of blue.
“That could have something to do with it,” he said.
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