Skating only? For Shani Davis, it's never that easy

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – After a disappointing 19th-place performance in the 1,500 meters here, Shani Davis approached a small gathering of American reporters.

“We will stick to skating questions,” the public-relations man said, with Davis nodding at his ground rules.

Yes, skating only. If only it was that easy. If Shani Davis could stick to only skating, the 35-year-old might be enjoying a victory lap of sorts here no matter how he fared on the ice. There’s never been any question about Davis on the ice. He’s a legend.

He won a gold (1,000) and a silver (1,500) in Turin in 2006, and duplicated the results four years later in Vancouver. Then there are the slew of world championships, his sheer longevity and his pioneering status that helped attract a new generation of African-American long-track speed skaters to a sport where Davis used to be all alone.

He’s one of the most exciting speed skaters of all time. When he was introduced here before his race, fans from around the world gave him a warm round of applause. Everyone was happy to see him skate again, the guy who was drawn to the sport after learning to roller skate growing up on the South Side of Chicago.

It’s never been only skating for Davis, though. In Turin, there was a controversy over not getting picked for team pursuit. In Sochi in 2014 he blasted the USOC for a lack of support, among other things. Through the years he’s battled with Under Armour, other sponsors, the USOC, the media and competitors.

Then came last week when he lost out on being the American flag-bearer for Opening Ceremony. Athletes vote for the honor, with each winter sports commission getting one vote. Davis finished tied, 4-4, with luger Erin Hamlin. Per the written rules a coin flip determined the winner. Hamlin won.

Davis took to Twitter to claim Team USA “dishonorably tossed a coin” and remind everyone it was Black History Month. A number of U.S. athletes found the complaint unwarranted and a slight that took the focus off Hamlin, who had nothing to do with any of it. Then Davis skipped the Opening Ceremony and has yet to speak publicly to American media about the issue.

He did talk to a Dutch newspaper Nederlandse, and stated: “It happened for the better, I probably needed the rest anyway. But, you know, once every four years, my fifth Olympics, I thought it would be really special to hold the flag. I guess the USOC and the other people thought differently.”

Shani Davis finished 19th in the men’s 1,500 meters speed skating race at the 2018 Winter Olympics. (AP)

Again, it’s an athlete vote and the USOC did nothing but follow the pre-set guidelines of a coin flip – which may not be the best solution but wasn’t some rule designed to stop Shani Davis.

When asked if he wanted to at least clarify he wasn’t trying to say Hamlin was an undeserving flag bearer, Davis cited the rules of the interview.

“Before we started this interview we were sticking to skating-only questions and I’d like to continue to focus on skating-only questions,” Davis said.

When asked if this latest flare-up impacted his skating, he almost laughed it off.

“Well, I’ve been through a lot worse than what’s been going [on] the last few weeks so this didn’t disturb me whatsoever,” Davis said.

When he was later asked if he would explain why he wouldn’t address the issue, he left.

Davis has never really cared about this stuff – playing nice for the media, playing nice with other athletes, playing nice for the USOC. Here in Olympics No. 5, he’s still the same guy he’s always been, incredibly talented and unconcerned about the ramifications of speaking his mind.

He could have pretended to be something else through the years, rehearsed a bunch of lines and sought every endorsement dollar he could get. It’s a well-worn Olympic playbook. His story is inspirational. His accomplishment without question.

Shani Davis was upset about not being chosen as flag-bearer for the U.S. team in his fifth Olympics. (AP)

Davis wouldn’t do it. Not then. Not now. He could have just laid off Twitter here and privately expressed his disappointment in not being flag-bearer. That isn’t him, though.

It doesn’t make some of his controversy any more sensible. It doesn’t make his decisions to say a lot and then not speak at all any better.

Still, you have to respect the consistency.

Maybe it’s the only way he could rise to the top. Maybe it’s the external fights that power the internal focus needed in this grueling sport. It’s not like any of these issues are horrible, unforgivable acts. Yet that’s part of the frustration. Why the drama over issues that feel so small next to an athlete who has otherwise stood so tall? Who the heck cares about 2006 team pursuit?

Davis has one more skate, the 1,000, his best race, next week. It’s likely his Olympic swan song, and if he hadn’t tweeted, it would’ve been greeted with great fanfare, the champion going out with all he’s got. Instead, his interviews have strict regulations.

Regardless, he hopes the 1,500 “shook off the cobwebs.” He was strongest early in the race. Maybe he can muster one more great Olympic performance at the shorter distance and remind everyone of just how great he is.

“Ice was super fast, unfortunately I wasn’t,” Davis said. “… I’ve got 10 days to figure out how to get on the podium in the 1000.”

If figuring that out is a skating-only question, the great Shani Davis might be able to do just it.

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