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Doping? Judging? Nope, the latest Olympic controversy is a skeleton speedsuit

The 2018 Olympics may never be able to escape the cloud of the Russian doping scandal that dominated headlines in the buildup to the PyeongChang Games. But the latest controversy in South Korea has nothing to do with what athletes are putting in their bodies. It’s about what athletes are putting on their bodies.

That’s right, the latest controversial topic is a speedsuit. Great Britian’s skeleton riders came out of nowhere to wow with top times on training runs earlier this week, and there is, at the very least, speculation that Team GB is deriving an unfair advantage from its uniforms.

And this isn’t just speculation from armchair experts. It’s from opponents. “I’m not a scientist,” U.S. skeleton athlete Katie Uhlaender said. “I just know that I was trying to get a suit of the same quality and I was told that it was illegal.”

The outfits, according to a glowing Guardian article published Monday, are “the latest version of the revolutionary skinsuits that have helped British Cycling to dominate the last three Summer Games. The custom-made aerodynamic suits provide a ‘massive’ improvement on the conventional ones – with riders expected to benefit by as much as a second during each of their four skeleton runs in the Games.”

The Guardian story continued:

“The suit works largely due to special drag-resistant ridges developed by scientists at TotalSim in Northampton, and the English Institute of Sport, which create a ‘turbulence effect’ in the suit that reduces the amount of wind resistance acting on the body. The suits are also custom-made, with each athlete undergoing a 3D laser-scan for fitting before they are built with polyurethane derivatives.”

British officials insist the suits are legal, and there’s nothing in the description that suggests they aren’t. The International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation’s rules on “clothing” are pretty bare. They do state: “No aerodynamic elements whatsoever may be attached either outside or under the race suit.”

Team GB and its manufacturing partners don’t appear to have done that, though. They’ve just engineered a material whose texture helps the riders. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

“People can speculate as much as they like,” said Jerry Rice, a British rider (not an NFL Hall of Famer). “The fact of the matter is the British guys are fast because we’re good at sliding, no other reason. We’re innovators, we do everything we can to be as fast as we can be.”

Lizzy Yarnold won a gold medal in skeleton at the 2014 Olympics. She’s among the contenders for gold in PyeongChang. (Getty)

A point of contention is that it’s not actually the athletes making themselves faster. Lizzy Yarnold, a British gold medalist in Sochi who outperformed expectations in practice runs this week, told the Guardian that the athletes’ outfits are largely out of their control. “We don’t get hold of the technical innovations until the Olympics and as soon as we finish competing it all disappears into someone’s bag and is taken away,” she said. “But that innovation on the equipment side is where we can make massive gains.”

Just how big an advantage are the suits? It’s tough to quantify, but Dom Parsons, who’s ranked 12th in the world on the men’s side, had the best time of anybody on his second training run. Laura Deas, No. 7 on the women’s side, had the first- and second-best practice runs; Yarnold, ranked ninth, had the third- and fourth-best.

Female British riders took the gold medals in skeleton in both 2010 and 2014, but their success has always been met with complaints. In 2010, American and Canadian officials questioned the legality champion Amy Williams’ helmet. There was again skepticism as Yarnold won gold four years ago. Now, the “gray area” concerns are being aired ahead of time.

So are the uniforms unfair? Maybe. But illegal? It appears not. The Brits simply seem to be pushing the boundaries of legality better than anybody else.