• International row threatens to break out on eve of competition
• Uhlaender and Wesenberg raise questions over skeleton equipment
Team GB’s cutting-edge equipment for the Winter Olympics was on Wednesday given the all-clear after an international row threatened to break out over the legality of their kit on the eve of the skeleton competition.
As the Guardian exclusively revealed on Monday, when the British skeleton squad – including defending Olympic champion, Lizzy Yarnold – arrived in Pyeongchang they were given game-changing skinsuits which are based on the same top-secret technology that has powered Britain’s all-conquering track cyclists in recent summer Games.
Almost immediately the startling practice times from the British sliders, as they hurled themselves face-down the track on a small sled at speeds of 90mph, caused disquiet among their competitors.
Team GB were forced to deny they were breaking any rules after the unfancied rider Dom Parsons, ranked world No 12, headed the timings in the men’s practices before the eventgets underway on Thursday.
With Laura Deas and Yarnold also leading the way before their competition starts on Friday, the US slider Katie Uhlaender, the double world champion in 2012, said that “a lot of athletes and coaches” had questions on whether the suit – which is said to massively aid aerodynamic performance – was legal.
“The rules state that everyone is supposed to have access to the same equipment as far as helmets and speed suits go, and not have any aerodynamic attachments on the helmet or in the suit,” Uhlaender added, having also questioned the legality of the helmet of the British slider Amy Williams, who won Britain’s first Olympic skeleton gold in 2010.
Rule 10.16.3 of international skeleton laws states: “No elements whatsoever maybe attached either outside or under the race suit.” However it is understood that the English Institute of Sport have worked with experts at the tech company TotalSim to find a way to abide by the rules while also providing their sliders with a big advantage.
When Uhlaender was asked whether the suits give the British sliders an edge, she hinted that she had previous tried to acquire similar suits without any joy. “I’m not a scientist, I just know that I was trying to get a suit of the same quality and I was told that it was illegal, and now it’s legal,” she added.
The comments from other riders saw the issue raised at the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation’s captains’ meeting only hours before the men’s competition was due to begin. The governing body confirmed that it had checked the race suits and “there were no rule violations” .
Britain has yet to win a medal in Pyeongchang and the skeleton event is key to their hopes of reaching their medal target of between five and 10 given sliders have won gold in the women’s competition in the past two Games.
The British rider Jerry Rice said he was not worried about other athletes questioning the legality of the race suits. “People can speculate as much as they like,” he said. “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. We’re all very relaxed about it.”
A spokesman for the British Olympic Association said he was confident the equipment would pass any legal challenge. “We are confident that all competition equipment meets the technical and commercial requirements for every sport and discipline,” he said. “We do not comment on specific technical aspects of equipment prior to competition.”
Britain’s Winter Olympic chiefs, meanwhile, have admitted they need a “little bit of momentum” to give their athletes more belief in Pyeongchang following Elise Christie’s crash in the short-track speedskating and the loss of snowboarder Katie Ormerod to a broken heel.
But while Christie spent Wednesday working with her psychologist Richard Hampton following her crash in the 500m final, Team GB’s chef de mission, Mike Hay, insisted that the speed skater would fight back and the team’s medal target remained attainable.
“We need a little bit of momentum to run through the team to give people the belief,” said Hay, “Elise will be disappointed and Katie Ormerod in the big air was a big chance. Our medal target is hard but didn’t win any short-track medals in Sochi and we won four [in other events], so I’m still confident we’ve got athletes to take us there.”
Hay also backed Christie to get her Olympic dream back on track, starting with the 1500m on Saturday – and he insisted there was no chance of a repeat of Sochi four years ago when Christie went on to be disqualified in the 1000m and 1500m.
“Elise is a different athlete to what she was four years ago,” said Hay. “She’s a double world champion and a quality athlete, and she’s got great support staff and she’s going to need that for the next couple of days to get herself back up. But she’s more determined than ever.”
While Christie licked her wounds, the Canadian bronze medallist Kim Boutin, who initially finished fourth in the 500m final, faced death threats after the controversial disqualification of South Korean superstar Minjeong Choi.
Mark Adams, the IOC’s head of communications, said: “None of us, unfortunately, can control social media. But we would ask everyone to respect the Olympic spirit.”