Shani Davis Goes His Own Way, but Controversy Seems to Follow


Davis took to Twitter and wrote that the committee, “dishonorably tossed a coin to decide its 2018 flag bearer. No problem. I can wait until 2022. #BlackHistoryMonth2018 #PyeongChange2018.”

Then he skipped the ceremony and made his Twitter account private.

He also skipped the team’s introductory news conference. In general, he has not made himself available to speak to reporters here. Likewise, he has been absent from the plethora of jovial photographs his teammates have been posting on social media.

And still Davis looms large. He may not be expected to win a medal in any of his events, but as one of the biggest stars in speedskating, he still has the ability to invoke respect and awe in his competitors and teammates.

To grasp his influence on the generation of athletes making their mark now at the Games, one only needs to comb through the official athlete biographies, which give competitors here a chance to list their personal heroes. Davis was named by a disparate collection of skaters including Takuro Oda, 25, of Japan; Haavard Lorentzen, 25, of Norway; Ekaterina Konstantinova, 22, of Russia; and several of his younger American teammates.

Kimani Griffin, 27, a long-track skater from Winton-Salem, N.C., was 13 or 14 years old when he first met Davis at a short-track competition in Ohio. Griffin guessed Davis would not remember the interaction. But it had a big impact on Griffin as a young skater.

“I think I had a big Afro, and he had a big Afro back then,” Griffin said with a laugh.

As Griffin spent more time around Davis, his respect for him grew. In a sport that has struggled with diversity in the United States, Griffin found someone to whom he could relate, someone to try to emulate.

“Getting to know him as a person outside of the sport and more on a personal level, seeing how hard he dedicates himself to training, and all the accolades and accomplishments he has despite whatever adversity he may have overcome, it says a lot about his character,” Griffin said. “And for me, being half-African American, he’s set the tone for me as far as what champions are made of, even with any adversity.”

“He’s accomplished everything there is accomplish,” he added.

Davis won a gold medal in the 1,000 meters and a silver medal in the 1,500 meters at the Winter Games in 2006 in Turin, Italy, and repeated with the same medals in the same events at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Davis referenced these accomplishments when he took to Twitter to express his disappointment that he had not been picked to carry the flag.

Most of his teammates have not publicly commented on his sentiments, though in a tweet that she eventually deleted, the luger Summer Britcher, 23, wrote: “Wow. Very happy a #soreloser like this is not representing us tomorrow. Good luck in your events, good thing character doesn’t play a part in your results.”

In the weeks before the Olympics, Davis had used social media to broadcast various grievances — with the U.S.O.C., with team sponsors, with the news media.

On Feb. 1, Davis wrote on Twitter, “The American speed skating team did not win in Sochi but it was the USOC that failed the entire team.”

On Jan. 26, referring to Sochi, he posted, “Under Armour feels no remorse or accountability for 2014 and instead of being humble and appreciative that they got away with providing the entire 2014 Olympic long track team with defective equipment, their brilliant marketing strategy now is to swagger about its new suits.”

Other skaters on the team have played nice with Under Armour, expressing confidence that the uniforms were handled well this time around. Davis, who has largely trained apart from his American teammates during the year, will skate in his own suit.

And Davis has repeatedly called out NBC, the broadcaster of the Olympics, for what he seems to regard as negative narratives and mischaracterization about his career.

(Davis strikes a different tone on his personal blog, where he wrote last week about his hope to produce “pure, thoughtless skating, doing it for the love and skating from my heart and not with my head overcomplicating the process.”)

Anthony Barthell, a coach on the United States short-track team who at one point lived with Davis for five years, said his legacy was secure, not only for his victories on the ice but for the way he widened the lane for minority athletes in winter sports that demographically remain overwhelmingly white.

Barthell said Davis paved the way for black skaters like himself and Maame Biney, an 18-year-old short-track skater who is at her first Olympics.

“A lot of things he had to endure, I didn’t have to go through that, and Maame doesn’t have to go through that,” Barthell said. “His record stands for itself. He’s going to be a legend no matter what. I think he’s the best long-tracker ever.”

A person with that pedigree might rest on his laurels. He might want to skate peacefully into the sunset. But Davis has seemed happy to do things his own way.

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