Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Shani Davis Goes For Gold

(This Article ran in the LA Sentinel 2/11/10 - in lieu of Shani Davis skating tonight for repeat gold in the 1,000 meters, I'm sharing with my pre Olympic story on him. I'd link it but my paper's website unfortunately cut it short)

Going For Gold Alone
Shani Davis has been painted as a rebel but he's also poised for multiple gold at Vancouver

By Evan Barnes
Sentinel Sports Editor

Imagine being one of the best in your sport and doing it without the support of your country or major sponsorship.
Now imagine representing that country at one of the premier events in the world knowing the feud will play out before a large audience.

If you're Shani Davis, this is what he faced when the Winter Olympics started last Friday.
The Chicago native cast as the reclusive rebel who just happens to be the best American speedskater heading to the Vancouver Olympics.

He's also a rare Black Winter Olympian, the first to win an individual event and the favorite to win the 1,000 and 1,500 meter sprints, the races he also holds the world record in.
It's a story more people should be talking about given the historic lack of Black representation at these games - anyone remember Bryant Gumbel's infamous remarks four years ago when he, among other things, compared the Winter Games to a GOP convention because of the lack of Blacks participating?

But unfortunately, all people will hear about Davis is how he distanced himself from USA Speedskating and him being painted as an outsider in a sport where his skin color already sets him apart.

It's not the first time they've been at odds. At the Olympic qualifiers in 2001, there were allegations that he won the 1,000m final as a result of an alleged fix by teammates Apolo Ohno and Rusty Smith, later disproven by an arbitrary panel.

He was named an alternate to the Olympic squad but ended up leaving early to compete in the Junior World Championships.

And four years ago at the Olympics in Turin, Italy, his historic win in the 1,000 was overshadowed by him not skating in the team pursuit event a few days later, a decision that branded him as a poor teammate and selfish despite Davis not being eligible for the pursuit.

He was publicly criticized by teammate and rival Chad Hedrick and USA Speedskating remained mum on clarifying his situation, despite them submitting his name as an alternate for the pursuit without his knowledge.

It robbed him of not just enjoying history but any goodwill coming from being the first Black to win an individual Gold medal at the Winter Games. Is it any surprise that Davis requested his biography be removed from the team media guide and website?

So here he is in Vancouver, without the bevy of sponsors that his teammates have, the top-flight coaching and the media attention as he has mostly shunned them over the past four years. He's going it alone with the support of his mother, Cherie, who acts as his agent.

Maybe it's progress that his novelty has worn off, that his success over the past four years in the World Championships has overshadowed his race. Or it's just another example of a Black athlete being misunderstood and preferring to stay in his own lane.

It's not unique to American sports history. Black athletes in the 1960's and 70's were routinely cast as bitter and unaccommodating to a press corps that rarely took their side and sought to keep them in
their place.

They didn't trust the media to understand their situation and with America still divided by the civil rights movement and its backlash, they were forced to go it alone - only relying on their teammates and each other for support.

Times are obviously different now but Davis is painted in the same way. And just like those players, he has thrived in spite of it.

Entering the Games, he owns three world records and is the current winner of the Oscar Mathisen Award awarded to the world's best speedskater (he also won in 2005). He's earned the reputation as one of the most disciplined members of the team - all the more impressive considering his lack of sponsorship and coaching.

This year, his focus on solely on repeating in the 1,000 and winning in the 1,500 (he won silver in 2006). All of the negative energy from Turin is part of the past and he's hoping to embrace the Olympic
experience this time around.

And as arguably the most high profile Black Winter Olympian since Debi Thomas in 1988 when she won the bronze in figure skating, he'll be set to make more history - the first Black Olympian to medal at two separate Games.

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